(May 2022. Year 3 recap.)

If this is your first time here on Don’t Let The Days Go By, welcome. DLTDGB is a continuing story set in 1997 (currently), about a university student making his way in life. I am currently on hiatus from writing; the story will continue sometime in June. Today’s post is a recap of the highlights of year 3.

(Also, in case you need it, here is the recap of year 1, and here is the recap of year 2.)


I spent a week at my parents’ house at the beginning of summer, in which my brother and I made a board game based on all of our silly inside jokes. I then returned to Jeromeville to take a summer school computer science class.

June 25-27, 1996. The first week of summer session. (#89)

After making lots of new friends the previous year, summer was more lonely. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their weekly meeting, although there was one Bible study for students still around in the summer. Many of my friends had left Jeromeville for the summer, including my crush, Haley Channing. A few interesting things happened around my apartment complex, including accidentally hitting someone’s taillight, a friendly new neighbor, and an interesting conversation with the TA for the computer class, whose girlfriend lived at the complex. Ramon, Jason, and Caroline, my friends from freshman year whose apartment I could walk to in five minutes, were still around for the summer, and I shared with them a new creative project I began.

July 18-20, 1996. A new creative project and a new cheeseburger. (#92)

The college pastor of Jeromeville Covenant Church got married that summer. I did not attend J-Cov, nor did I know this pastor, but many of my friends did, and I got to see a lot of them that weekend. I also got to see Lawsuit, my favorite local independent band, two more times that year before they broke up. Shortly before I moved out of my little studio apartment, my Bible study surprised me with cupcakes for my 20th birthday.

August 15-21, 1996. My final week in Apartment 124. (#97)

I went to my parents’ house again for a week. My brother and his friends had a tournament for a game called Moport, a hybrid of several sports that we used to play in the yard. When I returned to Jeromeville, I moved into a three-bedroom apartment with three other guys. I shared the large bedroom with Shawn Yang, my Bible study leader from the previous year. Brian Burr, one of Shawn’s previous roommates, also lived with us; he was working part time for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship while applying to medical school. Josh McGraw, the boyfriend of our friend Abby, lived in the other room; I did not know him as well, because he kept odd hours. Shawn and Brian and I pulled off an epic toilet-papering prank, the first one I was ever involved with; then the week after that, Brian and I went to Outreach Camp with dozens of other JCF students.

Late September, 1996. Outreach Camp and the first JCF meeting of the year. (#101)

I began classes for the fall the week after that. Notably on my schedule, I was in University Chorus for the first time. I did not have a background in voice or classical music, but I had been singing at Mass at the Newman Center for about a year at the time, and I had several friends in chorus who had been encouraging me to participate.

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus. (#102)

I had grown up Catholic, and I had been attending Mass more regularly since coming to Jeromeville. But I had also gotten involved with JCF, which was nondenominational, and after learning more about what it really means to follow Jesus, I noticed some things happening at the Newman Center that left me feeling like it might not be the best place for someone really wanting to learn about Jesus and the Bible. But I also did not want to start going to church with my new friends just because it was the cool place to be; I wanted to make the right decision. So for about a month, I went to church twice every Sunday, at Jeromeville Covenant with my friends and then at Newman where I had been for two years. After much thought and prayer, I decided to attend J-Cov full time.

October 13, 1996. I might be looking for something new. (#104)
Late October, 1996. Together with You, I will look for another sea. (#105)

The more I got involved with JCF, I started to see a lot of cliques within the group, and despite being more involved there, I was still on the outside of the cliques. A ministry within JCF purporting to train students for future leadership selected its students by invitation only, and I felt excluded sometimes by the students in this group. It was a particularly sensitive issue for me because Haley was in the group, and other guys seemed to be paying attention to her. I got brave and told her during the last week of the quarter how I felt about her, and she did not feel the same way about me.

Early December, 1996. We were all just kids. (#111)

A lot of other, less depressing things happened that December. I had my first concert for chorus, and my parents came up to see it. And I traveled farther east than I ever had before, the first time I remember being on an airplane although Mom says I was on one once as a baby. Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF, hosts a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, and as a newly practicing Christian, I wanted to learn more about ministry opportunities. I was not ready to serve Jesus in some other country myself, but many of my friends were doing those kinds of projects during the summer, and I wanted to learn more.

December 27-31, 1996. You are my witnesses. (#113)

I found my place to serve soon after that, but it was not through any connection I made at Urbana. One Sunday afternoon after church at J-Cov, three teenage boys randomly walked up to me and asked if I wanted to go to McDonald’s with them. I said sure, and we had a great time hanging out that afternoon. Taylor Santiago, one of my friends from freshman year, was a volunteer with the junior high school youth group at J-Cov, but he was going to be gone all spring and summer doing urban ministry in Chicago. After Taylor noticed me hanging out with those guys, he suggested that I try out being a youth group leader, taking his place while he was gone. I did, and I loved it. I knew several of the other youth group leaders from church, and my roommate Josh, the one I barely knew, was a leader too.

February 5, 1997. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. (#118)

That winter was when the Star Wars movies were rereleased with new footage, and Brian was a huge Star Wars fan. I was not anti-Star Wars, but I did not grow up with Star Wars like many other boys born in the 1970s did. But with the movies in theaters again, and Brian as a roommate, I was instantly hooked. I had never seen Return of the Jedi as a child; I saw it for the first time on the day it was rereleased, one of the few times I ever skipped class. But that night, my Star Wars-fueled excitement fizzled as I struggled to deal with my lingering feelings for Haley and her apparent interest in Ramon.

March 14, 1997. The Lord gave you the one he took from me. (#124)

I had been doing a lot of thinking about my future that winter and spring, since I was well into my third year of university studies without a clear goal for what to do after graduation. Two of my favorite professors offered welcome suggestions. Dr. Thomas told me about the federally funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs at various schools all over the country. I applied to some of those, got accepted to two, and chose the one in Oregon because it was the closer of the two. My other favorite professor, Dr. Samuels, had done a lot of work with education and suggested that I would make a good teacher. I had never considered being a teacher, because of all the politics involved, but I decided to give it a chance. Dr. Samuels set me up with an internship helping out in a precalculus classroom at Jeromeville High School.

March 29-April 3, 1997. A montage of the new quarter. (#126)

During the time I was frustrated with the cliques within JCF, I got to be friends with people from University Life, the college group of another local church. I attended their group a few times, and although ultimately I stuck with JCF and J-Cov, I made some new friends through that experience.

April 12-13, 1997. Alaina’s coffee house party, and a plan for next year. (#127)

I also got to be friends with the other youth group staff. Although we were primarily there to teach the students about Jesus and build relationships with them, part of what made the group so great was that we were also close with each other as a staff. Sometimes, my relationships with the other staff involved pranks.

April 27, 1997. A legendary prank for Erica’s 18th birthday. (#129)

Ever since Haley’s rejection, I was without a girl to think about and try to get to know. I’d had a few random encounters with cute girls that never went anywhere. Toward the end of that year, two freshmen girls from JCF caught my eye: Carrie, who was sweet and easy to talk to, and Sadie, whose outspoken conservatism was a breath of fresh air to a conservative-leaning student like me at a liberal secular university. The year ended on a good note; I was not as awful at this year’s Man of Steel competition compared to the previous year, and JCF threw Brian a nice going away party as he prepared to move to New York for medical school. I myself was headed off to Oregon to do mathematics research, but I was only leaving for eight weeks. I looked forward to whatever new adventures awaited me.

June 13, 1997. Brian’s going away party. (#134)


Of course, since I’ve just finished another year, that means another playlist of the music I used for this year.

So what did you guys think of Year 3? Do any of you have any burning unanswered questions going into Year 4? Thank you again for all of your support this year, and I hope that my stories have brought something positive into your lives. Let me know how you’re doing in the comments, and what you are up to these days.

(Interlude. Assumptions about me, part 2.)

Last week, I asked for people’s assumptions about me, and I would answer (in character, from 1997) whether or not your assumptions were true. I got very few submissions, but I did promise I would answer. If you still want to participate, let me know in the comments and I will reply.


From Bridgette:
“I assume Greg has an extensive CD collection and perhaps wears lots of band t-shirts.”

That seems like it would be true, but it’s actually not. I have a CD collection, but I’m also a student who knows enough about math to not spend money recklessly. I want to be absolutely sure I’ll like the CD before I spend that much money on it. And I don’t really go to a lot of concerts (I still regret having passed on the chance to see the Grateful Dead with my dad), and I don’t feel right wearing band shirts if I haven’t seen them live.

I should point out, however, that everything you assumed is correct for adult Greg in 2022.


From Lily:
“You play the violin or some other instrument in an orchestra.
You like fishing.
You prefer bowties to actual ties.
You sing second bass in the college choir.”

I don’t play an instrument. I took piano lessons for a few years as a kid, and one year I took a music class at school and learned to play saxophone. I quit because music was for nerds, according to 10-year-old me. I hadn’t yet embraced being a nerd. I didn’t do anything with music for several years, until I started singing at my previous church during my sophomore year at UJ, and then singing in University Chorus the year after that.

I’ve never been fishing. I grew up with a mom who is not outdoorsy at all and a dad who spent all his time working.

I don’t prefer ties at all, to be honest. That bow tie just came with the tuxedo. I usually wear t-shirts, or if I’m at church, a polo-type shirt.

Yes, I sing bass! We haven’t sung anything that had more than four part harmony, though, so all the basses sing the same part; there aren’t separate first and second bass parts.


That’s it… no one else replied… but if anyone has any other assumptions about me, let me know in the comments and I’ll reply. Also, be sure to follow Greg Out Of Character; I’ll be posting there soon asking for assumptions about adult Greg, as well as some other thoughts about writing. Next week on here I’ll be posting the year 3 recap, hopefully.

And, just so I have something to post, here’s a picture of Danny Foster, one of the youth group kids at church, giving me a piggy back ride. Strong guy.

May 30-31, 1997. The silly game show and the 13th annual Man of Steel Competition. (#133)

Eddie Baker and Raphael Stevens walked into room 170 of Evans Hall as Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s weekly meeting was about to start. “Hey, Greg,” Eddie said when he saw me.  “Ready for tomorrow?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied.  “I just hope I don’t do horribly like I did last year.”

“Dude,” Raphael replied.  “Don’t worry about that.  Just have fun.”

I mingled and said hi to more people as they arrived, and I eventually sat down when the band started playing, in a seat on the aisle.  Sarah Winters and Liz Williams, whom I had been friends with since my first week at the University of Jeromeville, sat next to me a few minutes later.  When the second-to-last song began, I walked up the aisle and out of the room, hoping that Sarah and Liz would not ask where I was going.  I wanted this to be a surprise.  I walked to the table in the lobby where Amelia Dye and Melinda Schmidt were filling out name tags.  I had hidden a garment bag under their table, which I asked Amelia to retrieve for me.  She handed it to me, and I took it into the bathroom and changed.  The garment bag contained the only nice clothes I owned, the tuxedo I wore for chorus performances.

“You look nice,” Melinda said when I emerged from the bathroom.

“Thanks,” I replied.  I stood in the lobby next to Darren Ng, Lars Ashford, and John Harvey.  Darren wore a mask of Mr. Clean, the mascot from the eponymous brand of cleaning products, but his face was painted green underneath.  Lars wore a tight-fitting sleeveless shirt, and John wore a suit.  Someone announced, “And now it’s time for another episode of ‘What Would You Do!’”  John, in his best game show host persona, walked to the front of the room and introduced the contestants, played by Todd Chevallier, Kristina Kasparian, and Autumn Davies.

“Now, let’s meet our celebrity judges,” John continued.  That was my cue.  “First, we have actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger!”  Lars walked out in his muscle shirt as the crowd cheered.  John continued, “Next, we have one of the richest businessmen in America, Donald Trump!”  I walked out in my tuxedo as the crowd continued cheering.  Finally, John said, “And our last judge is Mr. Clean!”  Darren walked to the stage with no explanation of why his face was green under the mask.

Playing Donald Trump in a skit in 1997 did not elicit the same reaction from students at a liberal secular university as it would today, after his term as President of the United States.  Back then, Mr. Trump was mostly known as a businessman, not a controversial political figure.  I also had not put a lot of effort into my costume.  I did not attempt to color my skin or style my hair exactly like Mr. Trump, nor did I impersonate his voice; I just wore formalwear and got introduced on stage as Donald Trump.

“It’s time for our first question!” John announced.  “You are driving down the street, on the way to an important business meeting, and you see your friend stopped on the side of the road, trying to change a flat tire.  He seems to be struggling with it.  What would you do?”

“I’d wave and keep driving,” Todd said.  “I don’t want to be late.”

“I’d pull over and help him,” Kristina said.

“Well,” Autumn explained, “I’d probably be wearing nice clothes, and I wouldn’t want to get them dirty.  So I’d just let him wait for a tow truck.”

“Judges?” John asked us.  “What do you think?  Who gave the best answer?”

“Todd,” Lars said, imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent.  “Your friend can’t change a tire?  He’s a girly man.”

“I also pick Todd,” I added.  “You can’t be late to a business meeting!  Your million dollar deal might fall through!”

“I think Autumn gave the right answer,” Darren said, in character as Mr. Clean.  “Because she wants to stay clean.”  Kristina looked indignant that no one chose her answer.

This continued for two more rounds.  As judges, we gave points to Todd and Autumn for ridiculous reasons.  Kristina gave answers consistent with how followers of Jesus Christ should treat each other, and she got no points.  As Mr. Clean agreed with Autumn that she should not lend power tools to her neighbor, because she might fall in mud in the neighbor’s yard, a loud voice in the back of the room shouted, “Zoinks!  Like, that’s not Mr. Clean!”

Brian Burr, my roommate who was on staff with JCF, stood in the aisle, wearing his costume from a previous skit in which he played Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and carrying the cardboard Mystery Machine van from that skit.  The crowd cheered as Brian walked to the stage.  “Like, let’s see who you really are!” Brian said, removing Darren’s Mr. Clean mask.  Darren’s green painted face emerged, and long pointy cardboard ears that had been tucked out of sight now pointed outward.

“Yoda!” the three contestants gasped in unison.

“What is right, you know,” Darren said in the voice of Yoda from the Star Wars movies.  “Help your friends, you must.  Hmm.  Show Jesus’ love, you will.”

The skit naturally led into a talk about showing Jesus’ love through serving others.  I stayed in my tuxedo for the talk, since I did not want to miss it.  I changed during the closing song and slipped back into my seat next to Sarah and Liz just in time.

“You did a good job as Donald Trump,” Sarah told me, laughing.

“Thanks.  Brian wrote that a few days ago; I was there when he was working on it.  The part with Shaggy and Yoda was so random!”

“I know!” Liz replied.  “I loved that!”

“You got to be in a skit,” Sarah said.  “I guess that’s a perk of living with a staff member.”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“What are you up to this weekend?”

“Man of Steel is tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s right!”

“I did pretty bad last year.  I’m hoping to do a little better, although I don’t think I have any chance of winning.”

“You never know,” Liz said.

“Yeah, but I’m pretty bad at Frisbee golf,” I explained.

“Maybe the wind will carry your Frisbee just right.”

“Maybe.  Who knows.”


The 13th Annual Man of Steel Competition began at ten o’clock on Saturday morning, at the house where Eddie, John, and Raphael lived in south Jeromeville.  When I arrived, Eddie checked off my name on a list, and I sat in the living room, waiting for further instructions.  “We’ll start sending people out for Frisbee golf at around 10:30,” Eddie explained.

John, who was absent when I arrived, walked in a few minutes later carrying a large number of bags and boxes from Taco Bell.  “Wow,” I said.  “How many tacos is that?”

“A hundred and ten,” John announced proudly.  “I hope that’s enough.”

Some time ago, a group of men from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship held an all day event called the Man of Steel Competition.  The event consisted of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and games of poker.  When the founders of the event graduated, they passed on the hosting duties to their younger friends, and the tradition had continued, being passed from Brian’s house last year to Eddie’s house this year.  

This year’s event was slightly different.  In the hamburger eating contest, competitors were given progressively less time to eat each hamburger, beginning with one minute and decreasing by five seconds with each hamburger.  Last year, Mike Kozlovsky had gotten a perfect score in the eating competition, shoving a twelfth hamburger into his mouth in five seconds, then spitting out a wad of half-chewed hamburgers the size of a softball.  Mike had graduated, but his thorough conquering of the eating event had prompted the change from cheap McDonald’s hamburgers to cheap Taco Bell soft tacos.

I got assigned to a group with Lars, Todd, and a guy named Chad, one of Todd’s roommates whom I did not know as well.  Each group got instructions for eighteen “holes,” specifying where to begin the first throw, and where the disc had to land or hit in order to complete the hole.  The first hole was to hit a garbage can in a park down the street.  I waited for a car to move out of the way, then launched my disc as hard as I could throw it.  It sailed straight and landed in front of the park.  “Dude!” Lars shouted.  “Sweet throw!”

“Thanks,” I replied.  My second throw was not on target, but I managed to complete the hole with my third throw, tying Chad for the lead so far.  Lars completed the hole in four throws, and Todd in five.

This park connected to the south Jeromeville Greenbelts, and the second hole was a few hundred feet down one of these trails.  As the game continued, we crossed Willard Avenue to a larger park, which was also part of last year’s course.  My lead did not hold; I began throwing the disc erratically more often as the day went on.  But I definitely did a little better than last year.  After our group returned to the house, I tried to pay attention to the others’ scores, to get an idea of whether I was in last place.  I did not see every score, but I did notice that a sophomore named Rob had more throws than me.

Eating, my strongest event from last year, came next.  Todd, Lars, Chad, and I gathered around the kitchen table with a big pile of tacos in the middle.  The rules were the same as for last year’s hamburger competition: sixty seconds for the first taco, five seconds fewer for each successive taco, and lips must be closed when time ran out.  I noticed last year that many of the serious competitors would get their hamburgers wet before eating; I suspected this strategy may not work as well with tacos, since tortillas did not absorb water as well as hamburger buns.

“Ready… Go!” Eddie announced, looking at his watch.  I took large bites of the first taco and was able to finish it easily in the time limit, with plenty of time left to swallow and breathe.  The challenge felt easy until the fourth taco, which I had forty-five seconds to eat.  When time expired, my lips were closed, but I had not swallowed the last bite.  I needed to eat faster.  I finished swallowing the fifth taco just as time expired, but I was taking larger bites, and my mouth and stomach were filling up faster.  From what I remembered from last year, my body reacted in a similar way to the hamburgers.

Both Todd and Lars were unable to eat the fifth taco, and Chad did not finish the sixth.  I was surprised; I remembered Lars lasting much longer in the hamburger competition last year.  I had outlasted the rest of my foursome, and this felt like a major accomplishment.  “Taco seven, thirty seconds, go!” Eddie announced as I took large bites of a seventh taco with half of the sixth taco still in my mouth.  I tried swallowing small bits of taco, but I knew that the end was near.  Fortunately, though, I managed to fit all of the seventh and eighth tacos in my mouth and close my lips before the time limit.  I continued trying to swallow, but it was too much.  With only twenty seconds to eat the ninth taco, and a mouth full of multiple half-chewed tacos, I only managed one bite of taco number nine before time ran out.  John walked up to me with a garbage can, but I shook my head.  From behind the mass of unfinished taco in my mouth, I made sounds that resembled the words “I wanna finish.  I’m hungry.”

“Okay,” John replied.

“Todd and Lars got four, Chad got five, and Greg jumps out to an early lead with eight,” Eddie announced. The others in the house applauded.  John, Darren, Rob, and Raphael went next, eating their tacos while I finished swallowing all of my unfinished tacos.  No one from that group beat my score of eight; Raphael came the closest with six.  A quarter of the way through the competition, I still had the lead.

After one more group went, Eddie walked up to me.  “Hey, Greg?” he asked.  “We’re gonna need more tacos.  Can you go get some more, since you’ve gone already?”

“Sure,” I said.  I kind of wanted to watch to see if anyone would beat me, but I also liked the idea of feeling useful.

“Get as many as this will buy,” Eddie said, giving me a twenty-dollar bill.

“Sounds good.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Taco Bell was about a mile and a quarter from Eddie’s house, just off of Highway 100 at the Bruce Boulevard exit.  Two people were ahead of me.  When I got to the front of the line, I handed the cashier Eddie’s money and said, “Can I get as many soft tacos as this will buy?”

“Yes,” the cashier replied.  She pressed some buttons on the cash register.  “That’ll be twenty-three tacos.  But you might have to wait a minute.  We had an order this morning for a hundred and ten tacos, so we don’t have as many ready as we usually do.”

“I’m with the same group, actually,” I said.  “We’re almost out of the hundred and ten.”

“Really,” the cashier replied.  “What are you doing with all of those tacos?”

“An eating competition.”

“That sounds intense.”

I had to wait about twenty minutes for my tacos.  By the time I returned to Eddie’s house, the taco competition had paused, with two groups left, because they were almost out of tacos.  My score of eight tacos ended up being second overall; Chris, a senior who had been my Bible study leader when I stayed in Jeromeville last summer, ate nine.

We all took a break of about twenty minutes to digest our tacos, then began the final event, poker.  We each started with a hundred chips and took turns dealing, with the dealer getting to choose the type of poker for each round.  Anyone who ran out of chips scored zero for that round and did not play any more.  I knew the mechanics of how to play poker, but I was not good at the strategy of deciding how much to bet, or whether or not to stay in the game at all.

It was my turn to deal first.  “Just regular five-card draw,” I said.  That was the first kind of poker I learned.  I had no good cards, so I bet one; when Lars raised the bet to three, I folded.  I was not happy about losing my one chip, plus the ante, but it could have been worse.

About twenty minutes in, with about half my chips gone, I had an incredible stroke of luck.  Lars was dealing a hand of seven-card stud, where each player has some cards face down and some face up, with four rounds of betting as more cards appear.  My two hole cards and my first two face-up cards were all clubs; I had a fair chance to get a flush.  My fifth card was the nine of diamonds, not a club.  I also had the nine of clubs showing face up; with a pair showing, I got to bet first that round.  I pushed three chips into the pot, hoping that that would not scare anyone enough to fold.  Todd folded, but Lars and Chad remained in the game.

The sixth face-up card I got was another club.  I had the flush.  I bet five chips this time.  Chad folded, but Lars raised the bet to ten chips.  I looked at Lars’ cards.  Five of spades, eight of hearts, two of diamonds, and jack of clubs.  It was not possible for him to have a flush, a full house, or four of a kind with those cards showing, and any other hand would lose to me.  Why was he staying in the game?  I raised the bet to twenty, and Lars raised again, forcing me all in.  If I lost, I would be eliminated.  We each received one more face down card, and then made the best hand we could from our seven cards.  “Three of a kind!” Lars said, revealing his first two face-down cards to be jacks.  “Jacks beat your nines, unless you have all four nines.”

“No,” I replied, “but I have a flush.”  I showed him the two clubs I had face down.

“Wow,” Todd remarked.  “Well played.”

“Aw, man!” Lars exclaimed as he pushed the pile of chips my way.  “You started betting big after you got the nine, so I thought for sure you had a third nine down there, and my jacks beat your nines.  I didn’t even think about a flush.”

My luck at poker did not continue for the rest of the afternoon, but that one big win gave me enough chips that I could go back to my typical conservative wagers and still have some left at the end of the hour.  I was getting frustrated by then, but I finished with forty-two chips, and several people had lost everything.  I really did think that I improved this year.

While we waited for Eddie and John to tabulate the scores, Raphael passed out this year’s T-shirt.  Last year’s shirt had a sentence and image comparing Superman with Jesus, and a Bible verse, but this year’s was a much simpler design.  On the front, it said “Man of Steel,” and on the back, “FRISBEE, TACOS, POKER, FAITH.”  I loved that shirt, and I wore it for years until it wore out and started to tear.

Chris, the guy who ate more tacos than me, was the overall winner; he placed near the top in the other two events as well.  Rob, the guy who definitely did worse than me in disc golf, finished in last place after eating only three tacos and losing all his chips in poker.  Rob was given the title Weenie of Steel and an extra small T-shirt, the traditional prize for the Weenie.

“Thanks for your help with getting more tacos,” Eddie told me after the winner was announced.  “I think you did better this year.  You were near the middle overall.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I did too.”

“I have to be honest with you.  Last year it was pretty much a toss-up between you and Dan Conway for the Weenie.  We gave it to Dan, because he was a senior, and we thought he’d get a good laugh out of it.  And I didn’t think you should be singled out like that.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I really appreciate that.”

“But you definitely weren’t the Weenie this year.  If we had a Most Improved award, you’d be in the running for that.”

“Wow.  Thanks.”

I was in a good mood as I drove home a bit later, across the overpass with trees in it.  This year had been a struggle in some ways, with all the cliques I had run into at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But at times, I also felt much more included at JCF now than I had a year ago.  I had a defined job at the weekly meetings, as the worship team’s roadie.  I had performed in two skits this year, as the resident director for the Scooby-Doo gang’s dorm, and as Donald Trump.  And Eddie was good at making me feel included.  He trusted me to get more tacos for Man of Steel, and he made sure not to humiliate me with the title of Weenie.

I had accepted the fact that I would probably not be in the running for Man of Steel, ever.  I was content being near the middle of the pack overall.  Hopefully, next year as a senior I would do a little better.

Next year, as a senior.  Saying those words to myself just felt surreal.  In two short weeks, I would be finishing my third year at the University of Jeromeville.  Pretty soon I would be graduating and getting an adult job, or maybe going on to graduate school.  What would my life be like then?  As if on cue, this annoying but catchy song I had been hearing a lot on the radio came on.  Some girl sang hard-to-understand lyrics seemingly about how things and people pass in and out of lives quickly.  I could not tell if that was really the message of the song, though, since the chorus degenerated into nonsense syllables.

I wondered about that for myself.  Eddie, John, Sarah, Liz, all of my friends who were also going to be seniors next year, would they still be a part of my life, or would they gradually disappear like my high school friends had?  These moments at UJ would not last forever.  I would finish school someday.  I would perform in my final JCF skit someday.  I would compete in my final Man of Steel and attend my final JCF large group meeting someday.

Of course, I had no idea how my life would turn out.  Maybe some of these friends would stay in my life forever.  Maybe I would go to graduate school, or maybe I would become a teacher.  Maybe I would have the best Frisbee-throwing day of my life, and have a streak of amazing luck, and win Man of Steel next year.  Not knowing the future is part of what makes life interesting.  After all, two things from this stream of consciousness already turned out differently from how I thought: I had already performed in my final JCF skit when I played Donald Trump last night, and the person singing all of those nonsense syllables on the radio was not a girl.

Chris, the 1997 Man of Steel, and Rob, the Weenie.

Readers: What’s the most ridiculous huge meal you’ve ever eaten? Tell me about it in the comments!

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May 23-25, 1997. Canceled plans and a trendy haircut. (#132)

For the last few months, I had been volunteering as a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Every year, the students go to Winter Camp over a weekend in January or February, and Adam, the youth pastor, gives them all a mixtape of Christian music from many different artists and genres. Back in 1997, there was no Spotify or YouTube for people to share their favorite music with friends. Instead, we Generation X-ers would play songs from compact discs or cassette tapes, one at a time, and record them on blank tapes. I had begun volunteering with The Edge shortly after Winter Camp that year, so I did not get a copy of Edge Mix ’97, but I borrowed it from the youth group music library and made a copy for myself.  I discovered many Christian bands and musicians through Edge Mixes over the years.

One of the more intriguing songs on Edge Mix ’97 was called “Hitler’s Girlfriend,” by a band based in Bay City called the Dime Store Prophets.  It was a slow rock song, with lyrics that I found a little mysterious.  The chorus said, “I’m not myself until you are you, if I close my eyes, I’m killing you.”  I thought the song had something to do with lamenting the un-Christlike tendency to look away when others were in need. The song also contained the line, “I feel like Hitler’s girlfriend, I’m blind to this and numb to that.”  Some have suggested that Eva Braun, the real-life Hitler’s girlfriend, lived a sheltered life and did not know about the Holocaust, although other historians find this unlikely.

I played that song three times last night while I did math homework.  Although it was the only Dime Store Prophets song that I knew, I wanted it to be fresh in my mind, because the Dime Store Prophets were playing a free live show right here at the University of Jeromeville today, outdoors on the Quad.  University Life, the college group from a large church nearby, not the church I attended, had put this show together, and they had been promoting it at all the local churches and college ministries.  Nothing was going to stop this from being the best day I had had in a long time.

Except maybe for pouring rain.

I did not expect rain this week.  Last Monday had been the first day of hundred-degree heat for 1997, and it felt like the hot, sunny, dry weather of summer had arrived for good.  But today was cool with heavy rain.  A dramatic cooling trend in late May was rare for Jeromeville.  As I rode the bus to school, and sat through my early class, the rain continued to fall, the thick gray sky showing no signs that the rain would clear up any time soon.   Would I have to stand in the rain to watch the Dime Store Prophets?  Was the band even coming anymore?  Would the show be moved indoors?  None of those sounded preferable.

After class, I walked to the Memorial Union to find a place to sit.  The tables were crowded, as was usually the case on rainy days.  Alaina Penn and Corinne Holt from U-Life were sitting at a table with empty seats; I walked over toward them and sat down.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “What’s the capital of Morocco?”

“Rabat,” I replied.  I was about to ask why she wanted to know when I saw the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt, on the table in front of her, opened to the page with the crossword puzzle.  Alaina started filling in letters in the puzzle, then paused.  “How do you spell that?”

“R-A-B-A-T,” I said.  “Hey, is the Dime Store Prophets show still happening?  You guys were putting that on, right?”

“It’s canceled,” Corinne answered.  “They canceled yesterday when they heard it would rain.”

That’s right, I thought.  Some people check weather reports in advance to find out if it will rain, so they would be less surprised than I was right now.  “Bummer,” I said.

“What are you up to this weekend, Greg?” Alaina asked.

“I was gonna see the Dime Store Prophets, but now that’s not happening.  So just studying, I guess.”  I could tell that the irritation in my voice was showing.

“JCF meets tonight, right?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be there.”

“See?  You are doing something.  Enjoy that.”

“I will.”




The rain had lightened up a bit by the time I got home from campus, and it was not raining at all when I got to Evans Hall in the evening for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The worship team was about to begin playing, and I had not yet decided where to sit, since I had been mingling and talking.  I looked around and saw Carrie Valentine sitting alone not too far from me.  My brain began overthinking, trying to decide if asking to sit with her was too forward, if it sent the wrong message, if I was setting myself up for disappointment. I thought about what I would say to save face if she said no.  I took a deep breath, told my brain to shut up, and walked toward Carrie.  “Hey,” I said.

“Greg!  Hi!” Carrie replied.

“Mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead!”

Carrie was a freshman; I had seen her around JCF for much of the year.  Two weeks ago, we had had a long conversation at a party after JCF, alone in someone else’s house while we waited for the rest of the partygoers to return from the grocery store.

After the opening song, announcements, and a few more songs, Liz Williams walked to the stage and mimed turning off an alarm clock.  A skit.  I liked skits.  JCF’s skits had been unusually good this year.  Liz looked at a Bible and said, “I need to read the Bible and spend time with God, but I’m gonna be late for class!  What should I do?  I’ll just take the Bible with me and squeeze in some time between classes.”  I definitely resonated with what Liz’s character was feeling.

I got excited when Ajeet Tripathi and his roommate Darren Ng entered the stage, dressed in suits and ties with dark glasses.  These were recurring characters who had appeared in several other JCF skits this year.  They called themselves Angels of the Lord, but they dressed and acted more like secret agents.

“Time to help her out?” Darren asked.

“Affirmative,” Ajeet replied.

Brent Wang walked past the Angels of the Lord, carrying books and notebooks.  Ajeet and Darren lightly tapped his back.  Brent started coughing and said, “I’m not feeling well.  I need to cancel my class.”

Liz’s character returned to the stage area and looked at the wall, as if reading a note.  “My professor is sick and had to cancel class,” she said.  “Now I have time to do what I’ve been meaning to do all day!”  Liz searched through her backpack, but instead of getting her Bible, she pulled out a folded copy of the Daily Colt.  “The crossword puzzle!” she exclaimed excitedly.  The crowd chuckled at this humorous turn of events.  Liz sat down looking at the newspaper, holding a pencil, as Eddie Baker walked by.  Liz looked up and asked Eddie, “Hey, what’s the capital of Morocco?”

I laughed loudly, remembering my conversation with Alaina earlier, but then stopped suddenly when I realized that this quote was not as hilarious to everyone else.  Carrie looked at me, wondering why I found this so funny; I wanted to explain, but I did not want to interrupt the performance.  Now was not the time.

The skit continued, with Liz continuing to make excuses not to read her Bible.  This led into a talk by Dave McAllen, one of the full-time staff for JCF, giving a talk about making time to be with God.  He referenced Luke 5:16, in which Jesus, despite being God in the flesh, still made time to get away from the crowds and pray to his Father.

I turned to Carrie after the final song.  “That was a good talk,” I said.

“I know,” Carrie replied.  “It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you have to do and forget to read the Bible.”

“I’ve been doing a little at this lately, at least during the week.  I take my Bible to the Arboretum every day after my first class and read and pray for a while.”

“That’s so cool!  I should find a spot like that.”

“It’s a peaceful little spot in the middle of God’s creation,” I said.  “But, yeah.  The skits have been really funny lately.  This morning, I walked up to some friends who aren’t from JCF, and one of them was doing the crossword puzzle, and when she saw me walk up, the first thing she said to me was, ‘What’s the capital of Morocco?’  So I laughed when they put that same clue in the skit tonight.”

“Oh my gosh!  That’s hilarious!  I don’t usually get very far when I try to do the crossword puzzle.”

“I can usually finish most of it,” I said.  “But there’s usually a few letters at the end that I can’t get.  I finish the puzzle maybe once every week or two.”

“Wow!  That’s good!”

“Ajeet and Darren are funny when they play the Angels of the Lord.”

“I know!  Remember the one where they shaved Todd’s head?  I had no idea they were gonna do that!”

“Me either!  That was amazing!  And remember that series of skits they did at the beginning of the year, where Brian or Lorraine would interrupt and put up a sign with the night’s topic?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“And at the end of that series, when they both started appearing with signs.  I thought that was funny.”

“I think I missed that one.”

“There was one where Brian put up the sign, then a few minutes later Lorraine walked out to put up the sign, and she tore down Brian’s sign and put up her own.  Then the next week, they both showed up with signs at the same time.  They saw each other, and they started fighting with lightsabers.”

“Whoa,” Carrie exclaimed.

“Yeah.  They were fighting, then they stopped and looked at each other, and they embraced and made out.”  Carrie gave me a horrified and confused look as I said that last part, and I realized that I had misspoken.  “Made up!  I meant made up!” I hurriedly explained.  “Like they weren’t fighting anymore!”

“Oh!” Carrie replied, laughing.  “I was gonna say, this is a Christian group; they did what?”

“Wow.  That was embarrassing.”  I hoped that Carrie would quickly forget that part of the conversation.  “What are you up to tonight?” I asked.

“I should get home,” Carrie said, slumping her shoulders.  “I have so much to do.  I have a paper to write this weekend, and I haven’t started it.”

“Good luck.”

“But I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Take care.”  I looked into Carrie’s dark brown eyes and smiled, and she smiled back.  Whatever I did tonight after JCF, it would not include Carrie, but at least we got to talk again.  Hopefully my accidental statement about making out would not do lasting damage.


Head-shaving had suddenly become all the rage over the last few months.  It seemed like every week or so, another one of my guy friends had shaved his head.  My brother Mark started shaving his head that year.  Even Lorraine had shaved her head.  A few weeks ago, Ajeet and Darren’s Angels of the Lord characters had appeared in another skit.  Todd Chevallier, a third roommate of theirs, played a character who knew that a girl who really liked him, but he did not like her back.  Todd prayed before he went to bed that God would make that girl realize that he was not the one for her.  As Todd lay supposedly sleeping, Ajeet and Darren appeared in their secret agent costumes.  Todd awoke and asked, “Who are you?”

“We are Angels of the Lord,” Ajeet replied.  “The Lord has heard your prayers.  We have come to make you ugly.”  Darren pulled out an electric razor and shaved an asymmetrical stripe across Todd’s hair as the hundred-plus students in attendance gasped and cheered.  Todd’s character woke up the next morning; the girl who liked him saw him, then ran away screaming.  After the talk at the end of the night, Ajeet and Darren finished shaving the rest of Todd’s head, right there in 170 Evans in front of everyone.

On Sunday at church, two days after the rained-out concert, the high school youth intern, a guy named Kevin, got up to make an announcement.  “Last week, the high school group had a car wash, to raise money for a mission trip this summer.  I told them that if we made two thousand dollars, they would get to shave my head.  Well, guess what?  We shattered that goal and raised over three thousand dollars.  So you can watch a bunch of high schoolers shave my head right after the service.”

Of course, I thought.  More head shaving.  At least this one was for a good cause.  I hoped, as a youth group volunteer with the junior high school kids, that I would not get chosen to have my head shaved at any point in the future.  I had read a column once by the humor writer Dave Barry, who wrote that black guys with shaved heads looked cool, but white guys with shaved heads looked like giant thumbs.  I definitely did not want to look like a giant thumb, and I had no plans to follow everyone else into this shaved head craze.

Despite that, though, I was not opposed to watching others shave their heads.  I wandered into the youth room after church, where Kevin sat in a chair in the middle of the room, and four high schoolers took turns running electric razors across his head, watching random clumps of hair fall to the floor.

A friendly and chatty girl from the junior high group named Samantha waved at me.  I walked over to her, and she looked up at me and said, “You’re so tall.”

“I know,” I replied.  “You say that to me a lot.”

“You should shave your head!”

“No, I really shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

I had a lot of reasons why not.  Instead of telling Samantha about the giant thumbs, I told her about something that had happened two months earlier.  “When I went home for spring break, my brother had shaved his head, and I told my grandma about how all my friends were shaving their heads.  And Grandma told me I better not shave my head.”

“Oh!” Samantha said, an understanding smile breaking out on her face.  “So you have to wait until she dies!”

Wow, I thought.  Out of the mouths of thirteen-year-olds… “That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I replied.  “Wow.”  I turned back to watch Kevin as the kids finished shaving his head, not really sure how to follow up Samantha’s comment.

When I got home after church, I turned on music while I finished my math homework.  Edge Mix ’97 was currently in the stereo; I left it in and pressed Play.  The Dime Store Prophets song came on midway through the second side, and hearing that song made me feel disappointed all over again that I had not gotten to see them.  The weather that led to the show’s cancellation was just strange.  Two days later, the weather turned sunny and warm again, like it was at the beginning of last week.

The opportunity was not lost forever.  The band rescheduled their show and came to Jeromeville in September, the first weekend after classes started, and I saw them a second time later that school year.  In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader.  I found a box of old Dime Store Prophets CDs when I was helping him throw away old things he did not need anymore, and he let me keep one of each album.

The conversation with Samantha, about my grandmother not wanting me to shave my head, had an odd postscript.  I would soon learn that my grandmother, whom Samantha had practically wished death upon, shared a birthday with Samantha, sixty-three years apart.  And although I never shaved my head completely, as my brother and many of my friends had, I did start gradually getting it cut shorter as I got older.  I typically would go to one of the cheap walk-in haircut places, and depending on who was available to cut my hair, some would cut it shorter than others.  Once, in 2021, my hair got cut longer than I wanted, so the next time I went to get it cut, I got brave and tried having it cut with clippers.  This was the closest I had ever come to shaving my head. And my grandmother died a few hours later.

I made the connection between Grandma’s death and using clippers on my hair later that week, as I was thinking about everything that had happened.  Of course, it was a complete coincidence; I do not blame my grandmother’s death on my use of hair clippers or on Samantha’s statement twenty-four years earlier.  My grandmother was one hundred years old, her health had been declining for quite some time, and sometimes a body just gives out after such a long life.  But the coincidence still stuck out in my mind.


Author’s note: Have you ever gone along with a hairstyle that was trendy for its time? Share an interesting story about that in the comments.

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April 12-13, 1997. Alaina’s coffee house party, and a plan for next year. (#127)

I looked up Box Elder Court on a map before I left the apartment.  It was a few miles away, in east Jeromeville, just past Power Line Road.  I was told that the party started at seven o’clock, but I did not leave the apartment until 7:17, and it was almost 7:30 by the time I turned onto Box Elder Court.  I did not feel comfortable being the first to arrive at a party where I knew few people.

But I wanted to go.  I saw Alaina and Whitney on campus a few days ago between classes, and Alaina had reminded me, “Greg, you’re coming to the coffee house party, right?”  Besides, I liked this new group of friends.

In hindsight, I sometimes humorously referred to early 1997 as my Rebellious Period.  Right around the same time I got frustrated with the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I had made some friends who went to another college-age Christian group, University Life.  I went to University Life a few times, although I did not stop attending Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, or my church.  I had not been around U-Life enough to notice if cliques were a problem, but I did seem to notice that they were not obsessed with putting people in categories like JCF was.  Everyone at JCF wanted to lead Bible studies for future student leaders, or for transfer students, or for students of a certain ethnic or cultural background, or for women, but there were no specific groups for any category I fit into.  I had heard that there would only be one small group at JCF next year that was not category specific.  I wondered if there were others like me who did not fit into the categories; if so that would be a very large small group.  More like a medium group.

Box Elder Court was a cul-de-sac, long enough for eight houses on either side.  (Every time I use the word “cul-de-sac,” I have to mention that the term literally means “bag’s ass” in French.)  Both sides of the street were mostly lined with cars already, so I had to park at the opposite end of the street from the house where the party was.  Either this party was going to be crowded, or many people with cars lived on Box Elder Court, or both.

I walked along the east side of the street, now in shadow.  The sun had dropped below the houses on the opposite side and was just setting.  Twilight was descending over the neighborhood.  I approached my destination, a pale blue house with a garage protruding from the front right side, the number 1402 on the wall next to the garage door.  As I walked to the left of the garage toward the front door, I could hear muffled noises suggesting a large crowd inside.  A sign on the door, on a sheet of poster board of the kind typically used for school projects, said “BOX ELDER HOUSE OF JAVA – OPEN!  COME ON IN!” Next to these words was a drawing of a mug of coffee.

I opened the door slowly and peeked my head in, then I quietly walked forward in the direction that most of the noise seemed to come from.  The house had a small living room on the left, with couches and a television; two people I did not know sat on the couch talking.  Straight ahead was a dining room area, opening to a kitchen on the left.  A hallway to the right of the dining room led to what appeared to be a bathroom and at least one bedroom, and to the right, a stairway descended from what were probably more bedrooms upstairs.  This house looked big for three girls; I did not know how many lived here in total.

Someone had pushed the dining room table aside and set up a bar stool with a microphone on a stand in a corner of the dining room.  A sign near the stool said OPEN MIC NIGHT, keeping true to the coffee shop theme.  About ten or twelve people were milling about the kitchen and dining room; a few faces looked familiar, but the only people I recognized for sure were the three girls I knew who lived here: Alaina, Whitney, and Corinne.

Whitney spotted me first.  “Greg!” she said.  “You made it!”

“Yeah,” I replied, looking toward the kitchen.  Alaina stood over an espresso machine making some kind of drink; next to the espresso machine was a conventional coffee machine.

“Hey, Greg!” Alaina said, sounding excited to see me.  “Can I get you a drink?”  Alaina gestured toward a white board, on which had been written a menu of coffee drinks.

“I’m probably not going to have coffee, but thanks,” I said.

“There are other drinks in the refrigerator if you want.  Help yourself.”

“Sounds good.”  I opened the refrigerator and took a can of Dr Pepper.  I noticed a few drawings and paintings adorning the walls around the dining room; I was no trained judge of art, but they appeared to be intentionally silly.  “I love the coffee shop decorations,” I said.  “Right down to the art on the walls.”

“Yeah,” Alaina replied, pointing to a piece of paper that had been profusely scribbled on with crayons.  “That one is mine.”

I looked more closely; a sign next to the drawing had indicated that its title was Studying for Finals, and that Alaina was the artist.  “Studying for Finals,” I said.  “That’s fitting.”  Next to Studying for Finals was a drawing in black charcoal of some kind of monster with large eyes, abstract amorphous spots vaguely suggesting a nose and mouth, and no limbs.  This drawing had been attributed to Corinne, and its title was Alaina.

“Corinne drew you as a monster?” I asked Alaina.

“Huh?” Corinne said, overhearing me call her name.

“Your drawing,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.  You know how it is, how sometimes your roommate can act like a monster.”

I chuckled at this, then noticed a sign that said PAINTINGS $5 – ALL PROCEEDS GO TO JEN’S MISSION TRIP TO BRAZIL.  “These paintings are for sale?” I asked.

“Yeah!” Corinne said.  “We thought this would be a fun way to help Jen raise a little money.”

“I don’t know if I know Jen,” I replied.  Jen was usually short for Jennifer, the most common name for college-aged girls in the United States in 1997, so there were probably multiple girls named Jen who the girls in this house knew.

“She’s coming later,” Corinne explained.  “She had something else to do today.”

“Oh, okay.  I still think this is a great idea, though.  Can I buy this one?” I asked, gesturing toward Corinne’s Alaina.

“You want to buy my painting?  Yeah!”

“Should I give you the money?”

“Just put it in the tip jar over by Alaina.  We’ll give you the painting after the party.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  I walked to the tip jar and put five dollars in it.

“What’s that for?” Alaina asked.

“I’m buying Corinne’s art.”

“Really?  Are you sure you don’t want to buy mine?”

“See?” Corinne told Alaina.  “Greg thinks you were acting like a monster the other day too!”

“I don’t want to get involved in any drama!” I said.  “I just thought it was funny.”

“We’re just messing around,” Corinne said reassuringly.  “Do you and your roommates ever argue?”

“Not really that much,” I said.  “Our apartment has been pretty peaceful.  And I lived alone before that; this is my first time having roommates.”

“Lucky.”

“And I don’t know where I’m going to live next year.  People always seem to make their housing arrangements without asking me.

“What about your current roommates?”

“They’re older.  I don’t think they’ll be in Jeromeville next year.”

“That’s too bad,” Corinne said.  “But, hey, if I hear of any guys from U-Life who need a roommate, I’ll let you know.”

“Cool.  Thanks!”

“No problem!  I’ll be right back.  Corinne left toward the bedrooms, then returned with a sticky note that said SOLD and placed it on the Alaina drawing.

I found a chair and sat and watched people for a while.  Ben Lawton had arrived while I was talking to Corinne, and Carolyn Parry was just walking in now, carrying a guitar case.  Corinne took Carolyn’s guitar back to the bedrooms, presumably to keep it out of the way of everyone.  That made a total of five people I knew by name at this party.  Carolyn looked in my direction, and I waved.

“Hey, Greg,” Carolyn said.  “Good to see you here!  What’s up?”

“Just the usual,” I said.  “Are you singing later?  Is that why you brought the guitar?”

“Yeah!  I’ll be singing a song I wrote.”

“That’s so cool!”

“How do you like the pieces for chorus this quarter?”

“I’m learning them okay.  I like them so far.  I don’t know German at all, though, so that’ll take some practice to pronounce right.”

“Yeah.  You’ll pick it up fine with practice.”

“Thanks.”

Around eight o’clock, Alaina got everyone’s attention and announced, “Make sure you sign up for the open mic!  We’ll start at 8:30.”  She put a clipboard on the dining room table, and when she saw that I was watching her, she said, “You’re gonna do something on the open mic, right, Greg?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Yes!  Sign up!  Just, like, get up there and do a math problem or something, and say it’s a poem about math.  That would be hilarious!”

“You know,” I said, “I think I’ll do something like that.”  I signed my name on the clipboard.

I did more people-watching and mingling until eight-thirty, at which time everyone gathered in the dining room around the microphone.  Carolyn went first, with the guitar she had retrieved from the bedroom.  “This is a song I wrote,” she said.  “It’s about God’s love for us.”  She then proceeded to play a fast rhythm on the guitar, singing from the perspective of God, calling someone who has been running away back into the love and hope that he offers.  I knew how it felt to want to hide from God, and his love and truth.  Carolyn was quite good as a singer, and these lyrics showed her to be just as good as a songwriter.

Next, a guy I did not know walked up to the microphone and began reciting a poem.  “Once, there was this kid, who got into an accident, and couldn’t come to school,” he said.  This was a dark poem, I thought.  “When he finally came back, his hair had turned from black into bright white.  He said that it was from when the cars had smashed so hard.”  As he continued reciting words, next about a girl with an embarrassing birthmark, I realized why this poem had sounded familiar.  He was reading the lyrics to a strange song that was popular a few years earlier, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies.  Despite being so dark, I always thought the song was oddly catchy.

A few more performers came up, performing various types of music and poetry readings.  Some were serious, others were silly, and others involved inside jokes among the U-Life crowd that went over my head.  After about seven or eight performers had gone, Alaina called out, “Next up, Greg!”

Hey, that’s me, I thought.  After signing up, I had prepared something according to Alaina’s advice.  “This is a dramatic reading of the Pythagorean Theorem,” I said.  A few in the crowd giggled, and when the giggles stopped, I began.  “In a right triangle!” I shouted dramatically.  “The square!  Of the… hy-pot-en-use!” I continued, taking frequent breaths and carefully enunciating each syllable of “hypotenuse.”  “Is equal!  To the sum… of the squares!  Of… the other.  Two… Siiiiidessss.”  I drew out that last word, pronouncing it slowly.  I walked away from the microphone, and everyone applauded.

“Good job!” Corinne told me as I returned to the crowd.  “That was perfect.”

“Thanks!” I smiled.

I stayed at the coffee shop party for another couple hours, until it wound down and the girls who lived there had begun cleaning up.  I took Corinne’s Alaina drawing off the wall when I left and hung it up in my room at the apartment, right next to Tear Down the Wall, the painting I had made freshman year with Bok and Skeeter and some others from my dorm.


The next day was Sunday, and by mid-afternoon I was still in a good mood after having had so much fun at the party the night before.  It was a beautiful day, sunny and a little on the warm side, but not hot.  Josh, the roommate I did not know as well as the other two, was actually home for once, and he seemed to be the only one home.  “Hey, Greg,” Josh said as I came downstairs to the kitchen for a snack.  “What’s up?”

“Nothing.  I’m just relaxing the rest of the day.  I don’t have any homework or studying.”

“You wanna come play disc golf?  I was just thinking, this is a perfect day for it.”

“Sure!” I said.  I grabbed the flying disc that I had gotten from Brian on the day of last year’s Man of Steel competition and got into Josh’s car.  Josh had an entire bag of discs of different shapes and sizes; he was obviously a more experienced player than I was.

We drove about a mile and a quarter south on Maple Drive and parked next to a city park near a cluster of apartments just north of campus.  I followed Josh to a concrete slab marked with a number 1.  “There’s the hole over there,” Josh said, pointing at a pole with chains around it, making a cage-like structure, and a tray below.

“So this is an actual disc golf course?  And the goal is to get the disc in the tray there?”

“Yeah.  You’ve never done disc golf here?”

“I haven’t.  The only time I’ve played disc golf was last year at the Man of Steel competition, and they just made up a course where the holes were trees or poles you had to hit.”

“Aim for those chains,” Josh said.  “Your disc hits the chains, they’ll slow it down, and it’ll land in that tray.”

“Cool,” I said.  Josh got his disc in the hole in two throws, using a different disc for the second, shorter throw than he used for the first throw.  My first throw went wildly off course, and it took me a total of five throws to make it in the hole.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” Josh said as we walked to the next tee area.

Uh-oh, I thought.  This was a classic move; Josh got me alone, just him and me, because he wanted to talk to me about something serious.  Maybe I was being a bad roommate, and he wanted to call me out.  Maybe I was acting inappropriately in front of the youth group at church.  Fortunately, it was not a bad thing at all that Josh wanted to ask.

“Do you have a place to live next year?” Josh asked.

“No, I don’t.  Why?  Do you need a roommate?”

“I do, actually.  You know Sean Richards, right?”

I attended Catholic Mass until about six months ago, when I got involved at Jeromeville Covenant Church instead.  Sean was one of the few other Catholic students who also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I know Sean.”

“What about Sam Hoffman?  Light blond hair, physics major like me, he goes to JCF sometimes?”

“I think I know who you’re talking about.”

“Anyway, Sean knows four guys who live in a three-bedroom house, and their landlord approved Sean to take over their lease.  So, Sean and Sam and I are going to live there, but we need a fourth.  You would be sharing the large bedroom with Sean.  But you two would have your own bathroom.  Are you interested?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds great!”  Sharing a bedroom was not ideal, but I had been doing it all this year, so it would not be that difficult of a transition.  It was somewhat amusing that I would go from sharing a bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing a bedroom with someone named “Sean.”  “Where is the house?” I asked.

“It’s on Acacia Drive.  Across the street from the Acacia Apartments.”

“That’s a great location!” I said.  Three different groups of people from my freshman dorm lived in the Acacia Apartments sophomore year, and I used to visit them there occasionally.  I knew the area.  “I could walk to church from there,” I added.

“Yeah!  We’re gonna take a look at the house sometime next week.  I’ll let you know for sure when we do.  But we’re all pretty sure we’re gonna go for it.”

“Sounds good!  This certainly takes a lot of stress off of me.”

“I think we’ll be a fun group of guys.  And it’ll be nice having an actual house.”

“Yeah!” I said.

Josh continued to dominate our game of disc golf.  He tried to teach me to throw more straight; his pointers helped a little, but I obviously needed more practice to throw a disc straight.  The Man of Steel competition, among the men of JCF, was coming up in less than two months, and I would need to throw much straighter than that if I wanted to avoid repeating my near-last-place finish.  I found myself getting a little frustrated, but we were not strictly keeping score.  This time was more about hanging out with Josh.  He told me that he would be doing the teacher training program next year, to be a high school science teacher.  I told him about my internship helping in a math class at Jeromeville High, and about the summer internships I had applied for, so I would be able to decide between teaching and graduate school.  Josh also asked if I had heard that Shawn, our roommate who was currently doing teacher training for math, had become disillusioned with it and was considering leaving teaching.  I told Josh that I had heard this, and that it was unfortunate.

I answered emails from a few Internet friends when I got home, and I had told each of those people that I had a great weekend.  I went to a fun party with new friends, and my housing plans for the following year had fallen into place nicely.  And no one seemed to care that I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship but hanging out with University Life people.  It was okay to have multiple groups of friends.  It was a good thing.

Corinne Holt
Alaina, 1997
Charcoal on paper

Courtesy of the G. J. Dennison personal collection.

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March 4, 1997.  Of a different ilk. (#123)

“UJ Campus Radio, 90.1,” the voice on the other end of the phone call said.  I got a little nervous making a phone call early in the morning, but obviously someone at the radio station was awake, since I had the radio tuned to this station and I heard music.

“Hi,” I said nervously.  “Is this Tina?”

“Yeah!” Tina, the disc jockey, replied.  “What can I help you with?”

“This is Greg Dennison.  I lived on your floor freshman year.”

Tina paused for a second, then said, “Greg!  Hey!  What’s up?”

“I was talking to Liz and Caroline the other day, and they told me that you were a DJ for Campus Radio now, and that you were going to play that music that Ramon made on your computer.  Is that true?”

“Yeah!  That’s coming up in about 20 minutes.  Will you be around to listen to it?”

“Yeah.  That’s so cool.”

“Great!  So how are things?  Still majoring in math?”

“Yeah.  Still figuring out what to do with a math degree, though.  And I started volunteering with youth ministry at Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“That sounds like fun!”

“How long have you been a DJ for Campus Radio?”

“Since fall quarter.  It’s been interesting.  I like it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Well, I need to get back on the air, but it was good catching up.  I’ll see you around campus, probably.”

“Yeah!  Have a good one!”

A while later, I was done with my morning cereal, reading the newspaper, with Campus Radio 90.1 still on.  This was a freeform station owned by the University of Jeromeville, broadcasting whatever its disc jockeys chose to play. I rarely listened to it, since its disc jockeys played some pretty strange music.  I smiled when I heard Tina introduce her next segment.  “Freshman year, my roommate’s boyfriend was in our room all the time, and I had a nice computer, so he used it to compose these electronic covers of popular songs.”  I smiled nostalgically as I heard Ramon’s electronic reggae version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” on the radio, the same song that I heard loudly blasting down the hall so many times freshman year.  I did not see Tina much these days, but I still often saw Ramon and Liz, the roommate from Tina’s story, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  Ramon and Liz had an amicable breakup six months ago, but they remained friends.


That night, I drove to campus for University Life, the college group from another church, not the one I attended.  I made some friends from University Life through a random encounter at the Memorial Union a few months ago.  I had been feeling frustrated at being on the outside of cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, my usual group.  I had been sitting with those U-Life friends at the MU and the Quad fairly often this quarter, and tonight was my third time actually attending U-Life.

U-Life was a very large group, with around two hundred students attending an average weekly meeting.  I looked around and eventually found Alaina and Whitney, two of the U-Life friends I often sat with at the MU. Next to them was a third girl whom I had seen before but whose name I did not remember.  I sat in an open seat next to Alaina.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “What’s up?”

“Just having a good day.  What about you?”

“Good!  We were just talking about our coffee house party.  You’re coming, right?”

“Yeah.  I should be there.  When is it?”

“April 12.  That’s a Saturday.”  Alaina turned to the girl I did not know and said, “Greg is gonna do a dramatic poetry reading.”

“Really?” the girl asked me.  “You write poetry?  Or you’ll read someone else’s poem?”

“I don’t know,” I said, laughing nervously.  “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Come on!” Alaina said.  “You totally should.  Have you met our other roommate, Corinne?”

“No,” I said.

“Hi,” the girl who asked me about poetry said.  “I’m Corinne.  It’s nice to meet you.”  Corinne was shorter than average, with light brown straight hair and brown eyes.

“You too,” I replied.  “I’m sure I can find something to read at the party.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” Corinne said.  “This party is just for fun.”

Alaina had told me a couple weeks earlier that she and her roommates were planning a big party with a coffee house theme.  I did not know how many people I would know there, and I did not like coffee, but this sounded like a fun way to hang out with these new friends from U-Life.

After the end of the meeting, I talked to Alaina, Corinne, and Whitney for a bit longer.  Next, I wandered around the room looking for other people I knew.  Carolyn Parry, who played guitar and sang in the worship band, was putting sound equipment away when she saw me and waved.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Will you be at our show on Sunday?”

I paused for a couple seconds.  as my brain tried to remember what she was talking about.  Show?  Sunday?  Oh, chorus.  I met Carolyn last quarter when I was in chorus.  “Yes,” I said.  “It’ll be good to see everyone again.”

“Good!”

“I’ll be in chorus again in the spring.  I just had a class meeting at the same time this quarter.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes.  I haven’t been able to do it every quarter.  I’ll see you Sunday, then?”

“Yeah!”

I walked back out to the car a bit later, heading west on Davis Drive, and then north on Andrews Road.  Today was a good day.  I had all my homework done.  I got to hear Ramon’s music on the radio.  I heard a good talk about Jesus.  And Alaina’s roommate Corinne was pretty cute.  I left campus and entered the adjacent Jeromeville city limits, keeping my speed at 25 miles per hour, which seemed unnaturally slow to me.  Jeromeville was a bicycle-friendly city with low speed limits that the police enforced strictly.  I thought of all of Jeromeville’s famous quirks as I anticipated having a peaceful, relaxing couple hours before bed to close out this great day.

And then I gasped in horror when I realized what today was.

My heart raced as I looked at the clock.  9:23pm.  I was too late.  I had failed.  I finished the trip home, disgusted with myself for forgetting something so important, and when I got home, I tried to avoid talking with my roommates, because I did not want to talk about this.


Jeromeville was a university town.  When a large university is located adjacent to a relatively small city, the university drives much of the cultural and political trends in the city.  Jeromeville had a population of around fifty-six thousand, with over a third of these residents university students; about six thousand more students lived on campus, just outside of the city limits.  Many of the adults living in Jeromeville were university faculty and staff.  As a result of this, Jeromeville readily embraced many liberal and progressive political causes and trends.

Since the 1960s, Jeromeville has made great investments of tax dollars in bicycling facilities.  I enjoyed riding my bicycle recreationally along the paths that ran through the Greenbelts in the newer sections of the city, with wide, safe bike lanes on streets connecting the different neighborhoods.  However, this made driving in Jeromeville a pain.  Many of the major streets had only one lane for automobiles and a slow speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The five aging hippies who sat on the Jeromeville City Council embraced these causes, refusing to accept the reality that Jeromeville had grown to its current size.  Jeromeville had a well-deserved quirky reputation among people in nearby cities for all the strange decisions made by its city council.  A couple years ago, residents of an older neighborhood were lobbying the city council to pave a dirt alley behind their house.  The dirt was extremely uneven, resulting in puddles forming during the rainy season, staying full long enough to provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city refused, on the grounds that dirt alleys were historic and paving them would ruin the small-town feel of Jeromeville.  Another relatively busy street in central Jeromeville was unusually dark, with very few streetlights, and residents lobbied for better lighting.  The city responded that more lighting would ruin the small-town environment, making it harder for residents to see the sky, and attracting traffic and crime.  In the real world, the traffic was already there, and dark streets attract crime better than well-lit ones, but the Jeromeville City Council ignored such arguments.

Chain stores and real estate development were particular villains to Jeromeville politicians.  In the last City Council election, twelve candidates, an unusually large number, ran for three open seats.  I voted for the ones whose views I disliked the least, and they finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh.  To lose an election in Jeromeville, all one must do is take campaign contributions from real estate developers.  The elites in charge will repeat ad nauseam in advertisements that their opponents took money from developers; this was a death sentence to any budding Jeromeville politician.

Downtown Jeromeville was sacred ground to the Jeromeville City Council.  The city did everything in its power to ensure a healthy central business area, to avoid the flight to outer neighborhoods that had left so many nearby downtowns empty and decaying.  But this had created some growing pains of its own.  In recent decades, the city had grown across Highway 100 for the first time.  The only route from south of 100 into downtown was Cornell Boulevard, passing under three railroad tracks through a narrow underpass with room for just one lane in each direction.  This underpass was built in 1915, part of one of the original highways traversing east to west across the United States.  The cross-country route had long since been bypassed by a wide freeway, today’s Highway 100, but the 1915 underpass was still in use as a local street.  The clearance was about three feet lower than that of modern underpasses, and occasionally a tall truck would get stuck there. It also sometimes flooded during rainy times.

At certain times of day, traffic backs up terribly at the underpass and for long distances on both sides.  I had heard horror stories about south Jeromeville residents taking close to half an hour to get downtown, a trip of less than two miles.  Downtown itself was growing, making the traffic situation even worse. A shopping center had recently been completed at the corner of Cornell and First Street next to the underpass. The shopping center was controversial in its own right, since the anchor tenant was Borders Books. When this was proposed, it divided citizens into two camps, one camp feeling that Borders matched the intellectual character of Jeromeville, and the other believing that large national chain stores did not belong in Jeromeville, threatening to put local bookstores out of business.  The most vocal member of the second camp was a City Councilmember who owned a bookstore. To me, this was an obvious conflict of interest, but no one in Jeromeville seemed to care.  The bookstore was eventually approved, and many publicly vowed to boycott Borders, because this was considered the right opinion by the Jeromeville elite.

I loved Borders Books.  I went there a couple weeks after it opened, after the hype died down.  It was much larger than any bookstore I had ever seen, and it had a coffee shop where people could sit and read.  They also sold music on compact disc, with headphones to listen to samples of any recording they had in stock, so I could know exactly what music I was buying before I spent money on it.  This store became one of my go-to places when I had time to kill.  If the local independent stores wanted to stay in business, they should add awesome stuff in their stores too.  This was how the free market worked, and I supported it, although I kept somewhat quiet about it because I knew that most Jeromevillians did not approve.

A proposal had recently been put forward to build a wider underpass, two lanes in each direction with a more modern design.  Jeromeville also had a long tradition of direct democracy for certain proposals, so this underpass widening had been placed before the voters.  I had seen “No on Measure K” signs all over town, with a small sprinkling of “Yes on Measure K” signs mostly in south Jeromeville, where people are actually affected by this awful traffic jam.  Last week, I saw organized opposition to Measure K at a table on the Quad, a balding man and a woman with long gray hair.  They displayed a picture of a four-lane boulevard crossing under a railroad track, with a caption that said “IF MEASURE K PASSES, THIS COULD BE IN DOWNTOWN JEROMEVILLE!”  In the fantasy where these people reside, that statement would sway voters against Measure K, but to me the same statement was an argument in favor.

“This does not belong in Jeromeville,” the gray-haired woman at the table said to two students she was trying to sway to her position.  “Vote no on Measure K.”

“I heard that traffic is really horrible there, though,” one of the students said.

“The Power Line Road overpass just opened last year,” she explained.  “We should wait and see how that affects traffic before we spend all this money on something else.”  As she explained this, I realized that I knew who this woman was: Jane Pawlowski, one of the five aging hippies on the Jeromeville City Council. She was frequently in the local news, and occasionally national news, for making some very strange statements.  She was the one who touted the historic character of the puddles in the alleys.  And when Power Line Road was extended into south Jeromeville last year, she loudly advocated, successfully, to spend extra money on a small tunnel under the road so that frogs and other wildlife could cross the road safely.  “Lots of frogs live in that pond, and we can all benefit from knowing that we have this psychic connection with the frog community,” Jane Pawlowski had said.

“The new overpass hasn’t solved the problem,” I said loudly, approaching the table.  “People still get stuck in traffic on Cornell Boulevard.”

“But does this eyesore really belong in Jeromeville?” the balding man asked me, gesturing toward the picture of the four-lane road.

“Yes!” I replied.  “We’re a city of fifty-six thousand people, and we need to build the infrastructure to support that population.  It looks safe and modern, and traffic is going to flow freely.”

“I guess we’re just of a different ilk,” Jane said.

“You got that right,” I replied loudly.  “And that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”  I walked away, with the other students around the No on Measure K table staring at me.

I knew as soon as I walked away that I should not have said that.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  I arrived at the Writings of John class that I had with many of my Christian friends; Taylor Santiago was standing outside waiting for people.  I told him what had happened.

“’They will know we are Christians by our love,’” Taylor said, quoting a song.

“I know,” I said.  “It just makes me angry that these pretentious intellectuals who hold on to hippie fantasies and use words like ‘ilk’ have undisputed control of Jeromeville.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Taylor suggested.  “Learn from this, and be kind if this ever happens again.  And if you really want to, you can contact her office and apologize.  She’s a politician, so she’ll have public contact information.”


I never did apologize to Jane Pawlowski.  I would take out my anger on these people with my vote.  Except, as I drove home from U-Life that night, I realized that I had completely forgotten to vote.  This vote had been on my mind for weeks, and once the day of the election arrived, I did not think about voting at all.  I had failed all of those who supported Measure K.

I read the newspaper the next morning and learned that Measure K had failed, with about 65% of the residents voting No.  My one vote did not end up making a difference, but I was still angry with myself for forgetting to vote.  It was not like me.

More interesting was the map of the vote broken up by precinct.  Every single neighborhood south of Highway 100 had a majority of Yes votes, since people on that side of town actually have to drive through the inadequate underpass. Only one of about twenty precincts north of 100 had a majority Yes vote.  At the time, Jeromeville City Council members were elected at large, by the whole city, representing the whole city.  No one on the City Council lived in south Jeromeville, and there was no requirement that members of the City Council live in different parts of the city.  The opposition to this measure was purely driven by elitists in the old part of Jeromeville, who do not use this underpass often, imposing their will on the people most directly affected by the underpass.

The next morning, I rode the bus to class, still feeling ashamed of myself.  I sat next to Tara, the cute brown-haired girl who I often saw on the same bus.  She asked me how I was doing, and I said, “Not well.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding concerned.

“I wanted to vote Yes on Measure K, and I completely forgot.  And it failed.”

“But that was a lot of money to spend on that overpass,” Tara replied.  She became somewhat less attractive to me that day when I found out she had been against Measure K, but at least she was against it because of government spending, not because of some fantasy about small-town feel.  That was a more acceptable reason to me.

The 1915 underpass remains to this day; Cornell Boulevard has never been widened.  Jane Pawlowski was right; I was of a different ilk than most people in Jeromeville.  Had I researched the local culture of Jeromeville before I came here for school, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else.  However, in hindsight, I am glad I came to Jeromeville.  I found a community here, and I found a great church where I was getting involved beyond just the college group.  Jeromeville, with all its quirks, was growing on me.  I may not ever vote for people who win elections in Jeromeville, but God was in control no matter who won elections on Earth.  And one day, I would leave this world behind and spend eternity in heaven with others who were truly of my ilk.


Author’s note: What are local politics like where you live? Share an interesting story in the comments! And don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to this blog if you enjoyed what you read!


December 6, 1996.  My first chorus performance. (#110)

I opened the closet door, sliding aside shirts and pants on hangers trying to get out the tuxedo from behind all of my other clothes.  When Dr. Jeffs had announced a few weeks into the quarter that we would need a tuxedo for our chorus performance at the end of the quarter, I panicked a little.  I had no idea how to get a tuxedo or how much it would cost.  A minute later, though, Dr. Jeffs mentioned that the music department had a place where they ordered tuxedos for people who needed them.  I met with a music major who handled the tuxedo orders; I recognized her from chorus, she was a soprano, but I did not know her name.  She measured my waist and inseam and arm length, just like senior year of high school when I took Renee Robertson to the prom and had to rent a tuxedo.

A week ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.  Mom wanted to see the tuxedo, and since it did not come with shoes, Mom told me we could get shoes while I was home.  I put on the tuxedo in my room, a little confused at first but eventually figuring out where to put the cummerbund and cufflinks and all these other accessories and articles of clothing that I did not normally wear.

I emerged from my room wearing the tuxedo, awaiting Mom’s reaction, wondering what she would find to make a big deal of this time.  “Look at you, all dressed up,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  Her tone quickly changed when she said, “The pants aren’t hemmed.  And they look a little bit too short.”

I looked down at the bottom of my pants, only now noticing the slightly ragged edge where the pants stopped at approximately ankle level.  I had failed; the show was just a week away, and there was not enough time to get new tuxedo pants.  “I never actually got my pants measured properly,” I said.  “The girl who ordered our tuxedos, she just asked if I knew what size pants I wore, and I told her 36-32, because that’s the size of pants I always buy.”  I paused before deciding to reveal more details of my failure.  “But people have told me before that my pants look a little too short.  Maybe they really are.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mom said.  “It probably won’t even show, if you’re going to be part of a whole choir.  And you’ll probably be in the back, since you’re tall.”

“That’s true,” I replied.

After I took off the tuxedo, Mom and I drove to Macy’s in Gabilan.  I hated shopping for shoes.  I had large, unusually shaped feet, and a few years ago I always seemed to have a hard time finding new shoes that fit me.  This traumatized me and made me afraid to buy shoes, because of all the hassle.  I wore a size 14 in athletic shoes and 13 in dress shoes, with shoes being more comfortable if they came in an extra wide option, although normal width shoes were usually not prohibitively uncomfortable.  The only black dress shoe they had that fit well had this weird scaly pattern along the surface of the shoe.  It looked like the shell of a shiny black turtle.

“Why is there that pattern on it?” I asked Mom.

“What pattern?” she said.

“This!” I replied, tracing my finger along the pattern on my shoes.

“Oh, that.  That’s what dress shoes look like.”

“What?  I’ve never seen dress shoes like that.”

“Dress shoes look like that.  It’ll be fine.  Besides, if we want anything else, we’ll have to special-order it, and it probably won’t be able to get to you in time.”

“I guess,” I sighed, resigning myself to the fact that these ugly shoes were probably the only option.  Maybe Mom was right, maybe dress shoes really do look like this, although I did not remember ever having seen shoes like these before.

I laid the tuxedo in the back of the Bronco; there would be time to change when we arrived. I had people to pick up; we had organized carpools a few days ago, and I got a car full of people I knew, which was fortunate since I did not know many people from chorus, at least not well.  Danielle Coronado and Jason Costello, were in my car, both of whom I had known since our first week at the University of Jeromeville.  We all lived on the same floor of the same dorm, Building C, when we were freshmen two years ago.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore, was also in my car; we sang together, along with Danielle, at my old church last year. After I picked everyone up, I headed east on Highway 100 toward the Drawbridge.

“How was everyone’s Thanksgiving?” Danielle asked.

“Nothing special,” Phil replied.  “Just went to my parents’ house.”

“I was at my grandma’s house in Arizona,” Jason said.  “There were a ton of people there, but it was really good.”

“Greg?” Danielle asked.  “Don’t you have a big Thanksgiving family gathering too, somewhere in the north state?”

“Bidwell.  But we didn’t do that this year,” I explained.  “My brother is in high school now, and he has basketball practice, so we couldn’t be away from home for that long.  So we just had a smaller Thanksgiving at home, just us, plus my grandparents on Mom’s side who live nearby.  Today is Grandma’s birthday, in fact.”

“How did that go?”

“It was okay.  I always used to like traveling to Bidwell, but it just hasn’t been the same since my great-grandma died.  She lived out on the edge of town on an old cattle ranch, and I used to love exploring in the hills near her house, but we don’t have that property anymore.”

“Did she pass recently?”

“It’s been a couple years.  Senior year of high school.  So how was your Thanksgiving?”

“I was just back home with my immediate family.  But it’s always kind of loud, since I come from a big family.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably like when I was a kid and all the cousins would be there.”

About ten miles east of Jeromeville, I took the exit for the Drawbridge and downtown Capital City.  “So why are we having the performance here instead of somewhere on campus?” I asked.  “Is it always here?  This is my first time in chorus, remember.”

“Usually the fall performance is here,” Danielle explained.  “Winter and spring are at the Main Theatre on campus.  But I don’t know why this one is here.”

“I think there are just a lot of other performances at the Main Theatre this time of year,” Jason explained.  “And they just couldn’t reserve the building for this night.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

A few days ago, someone had handed out a flyer with directions and a map.  I knew my way around Capital City enough that it seemed easy to find, but in the maze of one-way streets that was downtown Capital City, I got lost far more often than I should.  Complicating things further was a historic shopping district along a street that was now only open to pedestrians and light-rail commuter trains, which traveled the street at slow speed.  

In the middle of the pedestrian-only section was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the cathedral for the Catholic diocese for this part of the state and the location of this performance.   The large stone building, half the width of the entire block, was gray, with a large clock tower in front rising from the center and two smaller towers with crosses on top on either side.  A wide, low set of stone steps climbed about three feet to the entrances, three large sets of wooden double doors with statues of saints placed between them.  The middle set of doors was open.

The four of us arrived at 4:15 and walked in through the open door, through the lobby to the back of the church.  On the far side of the church, just in front of the altar, risers had been set up for the chorus to stand on.  The students who had arrived so far stood around and sat in pews, while the students from the orchestra set up their instruments.  At the side, a familiar face sat at a grand piano, organizing sheet music.  “Hey, Spencer,” I said, walking up to the piano.

“Greg!” Spencer said.  “I didn’t know you were in this.”

“Same,” I said.  “How long have you been doing piano for chorus?”  Spencer Grant lived downstairs from me freshman year, and he had gone to high school with Danielle.  I knew that he played piano, because I remembered him playing the piano in the common room of Building C many times, but I did not know that he was the accompanist for these performances.  Although I knew him to play piano, I would not have pictured him as the type to be in a performance like this.  Spencer always struck me as an odd combination of equal parts overconfident nerd and country hick, neither of which was a personality I associated with classical music.

“I started last year,” Spencer explained.  “They needed a pianist, I play piano.”

“That works.”

“Is this your first time in one of these?  I don’t remember seeing you here before.  Which group are you in?”

“Chorus.  I sing bass. And, yes, it’s my first time.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s great.  For a long time, when I was younger, I never liked singing in front of people, but it’s not so bad when I’m part of a group.”

“That’s true.”

“Section leaders, I need to see you for a minute!” I heard a voice say.  It took a few seconds to register that I was a section leader and I should be listening.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the section leader for the sopranos, a blonde girl named Carolyn, waving and calling out, “Section leaders!”

“I need to go see what that’s about,” I told Spencer.  “It was good seeing you.”

“You’re a section leader?” Spencer asked.  “And this is your first time in chorus?”

“Yeah.  No one else really wanted to do it.”

“A lot of people get talked into things that way.”

“I know.  I’ll see you later.”

I walked over to the other section leaders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“If anyone in your section doesn’t show up, be sure to let Dr. Jeffs or Sharon know as soon as possible.  If you didn’t bring your roster, here’s a copy of the program with all the names on it,” Carolyn said, as she gave the three of us programs.

I went up to the risers to stand with the other basses as I read through the program.  As the section leader, I had been responsible for submitting everyone’s names exactly as they wanted.  I listed myself as “Gregory James Dennison.”  Over the last several months, I had started using all three of my names when I had to fill things out, and I had changed my email name and signature to show all three names.  I remember passing the list around asking the basses how they wanted their names in the program, and my friend Scott Madison, whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship before I joined chorus, commented on my name.  “‘Gregory James Dennison?’  You’re using your full name now?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t know why, I just like the way it sounds.”

“Oooh.  Can I be ‘Scott R. Madison?’”

“Sure,” I said as Scott wrote “Scott R. Madison” on the form.

Phil Gallo took the form next.  “When I was in high school,” he said, “I was reading something about these gangsters from the 1920s, and they all had cool nicknames.  My friend started calling me Phil ‘The Fist’ Gallo.  He said it sounded like a Mafia name.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

“I probably shouldn’t put that on the chorus program, though,” Phil said, writing “Philip T. Gallo” on the form.

“‘Philip T. Gallo?’” I said.  “The T stands for ‘The Fist?’”

“Haha!” Phil shouted.  “My middle name is Thomas, but I like that better.”

The dress rehearsal went well.  We had performed these pieces well enough that I knew my parts by then.  Since we had learned them out of order, though, we had only been performing them in their entirety from start to finish for a week.  We sang Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis, commonly called the Lord Nelson Mass, first.  I liked hearing it all together in order; it began quickly but in a minor key, specifically D minor; switched to D major for the Gloria, and changed to many other keys and tempos through the piece to fit the mood of the lyrics, ending with an upbeat Dona Nobis Pacem in D major.  I thought we sounded great.

After the Nelson Mass, the Chamber Singers did their part of the show.  Sharon, the teaching assistant for chorus, conducted this part of the show. We did not have to do anything during that time except stand quietly.  As one who had not studied classical music in detail, I was not sure exactly what the term chamber music even meant, what distinguished it from other music, but the Chamber Singers were a much smaller group than University Chorus.  When the Chamber Singers finished, the University Chorus performed Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a composition from the early twentieth century incorporating four existing British Christmas songs.  This one had been more difficult to learn at first, since I did not have a recording of it to sing along with, but we had rehearsed it enough that I knew it by now.


After the rehearsal, we had a break for dinner.  Despite being in the middle of a big city, with lots of interesting places around to eat, I walked down the street to McDonald’s.  I needed something simple and familiar.  Danielle walked there with me, and we saw about ten other people from chorus there too.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe and French fries, but no milkshake or Coca-Cola.  Someone had advised me not to have sweet drinks or dairy, since those might affect my voice.

We all had to be back by 7:45, and I made it in plenty of time.  Some of the audience had already arrived, and more trickled in as we waited to the side of the risers.  My mom and dad were making the drive up to see my performance, and eventually I saw them walk in.  It was close enough to the start of the performance that I could not go talk to them, but I made note of where they were sitting so I could find them quickly afterward.

At 7:55, the lights went dim, and the orchestra began playing the oddly familiar droning A note that the stringed instruments used to tune themselves.  After they finished, Dr. Jeffs stepped up to the podium and raised his baton.  The orchestra began playing as Dr. Jeffs conducted, and a few measures later, we began our choral part.  “Kyrie!  Kyrie eleison!” we sang.

I was surprisingly not nervous at all.  I had rehearsed this enough, and listened to the recording of the piece often enough, that I knew exactly what we were supposed to sound like.  The entire Mass was long, around forty minutes; I sang my part, just as we had been rehearsing, and I stood still and silent as the soloists did their parts.

As much as I enjoyed being in chorus, I never considered trying out for a solo.  I did not have the vocal talent to sing a solo.  The resounding deep voice of the bass soloist, the clear high tones of the tenor soloist, the warble of the alto and soprano soloists, all of those were sounds that my voice was not trained to make.  I was not a vocal soloist, but I was getting used to feeling like I at least belonged in the chorus.

The rest of the night went smoothly, just as we rehearsed.  I felt a little uncomfortable standing through the entire Chamber Singers performance, looking down on Sharon conducting the small group in front of us, but once we began Fantasia on Christmas Carols, I was sufficiently distracted that I no longer noticed my uncomfortably sore feet in the ugly shoes.  I wished I had a recording of this piece, because I really liked it; it was a different twist on classical Christmas music, beyond the same old songs I hear every year.

The performance ended, and we got a standing ovation from the audience.  The applause seemed to last a long time as each conductor and each group took bows and was recognized separately.  I was a part of that.  They were cheering for me.  I was not used to receiving applause, and it felt good.  I smiled.

Eventually, the lights came back up, and I saw people mingling with friends and family in the audience.  I turned to Phil, the nearest person from my carpool, and said, “I’m going to go say hi to my parents.  If Jason and Danielle are ready to drive back, tell them I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Phil said.

I walked over to Mom and Dad; Mom saw me and gave me a hug.  “You look good in your tux,” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“That was very nice,” Dad said.  “I’m glad you’re doing music again.”

“Me too,” I said.  “What are you guys doing tonight?”

“If it’s okay with you, we’re just going to go back to the motel without stopping at your house.  It’s getting late.  We’re staying at the Oak Tree Inn in Woodville, because everything in Jeromeville was either booked or really expensive.”

“Yeah, that sounds right for Jeromeville.”

“We can take you to breakfast in the morning.  Does that sound good?”

“Sure.  That works out perfectly, because there’s an after party, and I wanted to stop by.”

“Great!  We don’t want to get in the way when you’re hanging out with your friends.”

“Thanks.  So I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sounds good!”


I got home after dropping off the others in my car.  The after party was at someone’s house, not too far from my house, just off of Maple Drive on the other side of Coventry Boulevard.  I walked in and looked around.  I saw a number of familiar faces, but most of my closest friends in chorus were not here.  Danielle, Scott and Amelia, Jason, Phil, all absent.  Claire and Margaret were here, but Claire was a music major, so she knew all these people, and Margaret was her sister.

“Hey, Greg!” Claire said as Margaret waved.  “What did you think of the show?”

“It was great!  I’m glad it’s over, though.  One less thing to concentrate on as finals start.”

“I know!  This is your first chorus after-party, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Have fun!”

I walked around trying to start conversations.  Most of the conversations were about music things that I did not understand, and a lot of people were drinking.  I sat to the side making small talk with anyone who seemed interested in doing so, and I learned names of more of the people I had been singing with for three months but did not know well.  I eventually went home after a little over an hour, because this party did not really feel like my scene.

Breakfast with Mom and Dad the next morning went well.  We went to Denny’s, where I ate way too much, and Mom spent much of the time asking gossipy questions about other people in the show last night and pointing out if their noses were too big, or their eyes were too close together, or any other interesting thing to notice about them.  Mom did this kind of thing for everyone.  She also said that the Oak Tree Inn was very nice for the amount they paid.  For the rest of the years I lived in Jeromeville, my parents stayed at the Oak Tree Inn when they came to visit.  It was only ten miles away, and much less expensive than the alternatives.

I may have not fit in with the crowd at the after party, but I was starting to feel like I was actually a musician.  I had no plans to try out for a solo, but I enjoyed being in the chorus.  I would not be able to take chorus winter quarter, though.  Dr. Hurt, the professor I currently had for Introduction to New Testament, taught another class I wanted to take that met at the same time as chorus.  I would do everything I could to make sure I took chorus again spring quarter, though.  In addition to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Math Club, chorus was now one of my activities to be involved in, and I looked forward to when I could do it again in the future.  Even if it meant wearing those ugly uncomfortable shoes with the tuxedo.

The ugly shoes today, after spending a couple decades collecting dust in the bottom of my closet and not being worn. I still have them, for some reason.

Author’s note: Have any of you ever been part of a chorus or any sort of performing group? What was that like for you? Do any of you have any interesting stories about that?

Also, I thought about making the song for this episode be something from Fantasia on Christmas Carols, since I already shared a different part of the Nelson Mass in a different episode. But Fantasia on Christmas Carols is 11 minutes long and not broken into parts, and I am posting this episode in October and I have a strict personal policy not to share Christmas music when it’s not December. But if you really want to hear Fantasia on Christmas Carols, click here.

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus. (#102)

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

August 10, 1996. One thousand red roses would not be quite enough. (#96)

I did not grow up attending concerts, and I do not know why, considering how I have always loved listening to music.  I just assumed that going to concerts was something that rich people did, or adults who had cars to drive to wherever the bands played.  My parents went to concerts; Dad saw the Grateful Dead many times, and my parents went together to see bands of their generation who were still touring, like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  

The University of Jeromeville hosts a large open house festival event called the Spring Picnic every April.  In the days leading up to the Spring Picnic freshman year, I heard people talking about a band called Lawsuit that would be playing there.  I listened to their show, and I was blown away.  I had never heard music like this before.  Lawsuit had ten members: in addition to the usual vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, they also had a second drummer who played congas and bongos, and several horn players.  Many of the members of Lawsuit grew up in Jeromeville, and they had a bit of a following locally.

After I watched Lawsuit at the following Spring Picnic, sophomore year, I signed up for their mailing list.  That was a little over three months ago, and I had been getting postcards and emails about upcoming shows.  One of the flyers a few months ago mentioned something called One Thousand Red Roses, a benefit concert to raise money for the Art Center in Jeromeville.  I had no strong feelings either way about the Art Center, but I did have strong feelings about seeing Lawsuit, especially since the show was on a Saturday after a week when I had absolutely no plans.  I went out and bought a ticket as soon as they were on sale.

As the show approached, it was difficult to hide my excitement and anticipation.  Two days before the show, I was at Bible study, and as people were arriving, someone made small talk by asking what everyone was doing for the weekend.

“I’m going to see Lawsuit!” I exclaimed.

“Lawsuit, the band?” Amelia Dye asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve seen them at the last two Spring Picnics, and I really like them.”

“I’ve heard them before.  Scott has their album.”

“I remember that.  We were talking about Lawsuit at that party at your house.”

“They’re good,” Ramon Quintero said.  “I saw them at the Spring Picnic once.”

“Who’s Lawsuit?” Tabitha Sasaki asked.

“A local band,” I explained.  “Their music is… well, hard to describe.  It’s like rock with horns.  But not really.  Kind of like jazz sometimes too.  And reggae.”

“Interesting.  Have fun!”


On the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, adjacent to the large park where I had watched fireworks on July 4, stood a small building called the C.J. Davis Art Center.  In this building, named for a local philanthropist who was instrumental in its founding, children and adults took classes in various forms of art, music, and dance.  Among those heavily involved in the local arts scene in Jeromeville was the Sykes family, and the siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of this large family included several members of Lawsuit.  The band put on a concert every summer, called One Thousand Red Roses, on a temporary stage in the parking lot of the Art Center, to raise money for it.

Although I knew from reading the CD booklet and the band’s website that some of the members of Lawsuit were related, I learned much more about the Sykes family from a tragic occurrence a few months ago, when a Sykes sibling not in the band died in a car accident.  The obituary in the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper mentioned much about the family’s philanthropic and artistic endeavors, including Lawsuit.

The show began at eight o’clock; I left my apartment at 7:15, since I did not know what to expect in terms of crowds.  I also walked, since I did not know how hard it would be to find a place to park, and the Art Center was only about a mile from my apartment.  The weather had been warm, but it was just starting to cool off as the sun sank lower in the sky.  I was sweating a little as I arrived at the Art Center, but if this concert was similar to Lawsuit’s performances at the Spring Picnic, I expected to get sweaty as the night went on, with people standing and moving around to the music.

A temporary fence around the parking lot had been installed so that only ticketed guests could see the stage.  I handed my ticket to the person at the door and walked inside.  About a hundred guests were already mingling about the floor in front of the stage; there were no seats, as I suspected.  Roadies were setting up the stage, which was already full of guitars, drums, horns, microphones, amplifiers, lights, and speakers.  The back of the stage appeared to be a chain link fence, decorated with banners and road signs.  A large fan blew air across the stage, probably to keep the band cool on the warm Jeromeville night surrounded by hot equipment.

Since I still had time before the show started, I walked over to the merchandise table and looked at the band’s t-shirts.  Most of them had the band’s name accompanied by some sort of random drawing, which apparently had some significance that I was not aware of.  I pointed to one shirt, light gray, with a drawing on the front of a surprised-looking man with his hat falling off.  On the back was the name of the band, LAWSUIT, accompanied by a collage of newspaper headlines containing the word “lawsuit.”  That was clever.  “Do you have that one in an extra large?” I asked.

“Let me check,” the man behind the table replied.  He turned around, looking through boxes, for about a minute, then turned back toward me.  “We’re out of that one in extra large,” he said.  “We have some of the others in extra large.  And I know we’re getting a new shipment in soon, so if you want to pay for it now, and leave your name and address, we can mail it to you.”

“That’ll work,” I said, a little disappointed but hopeful that the shirt would arrive soon.  He got out a spiral notebook and wrote “Gray Headline Shirt XL” and handed it to me.  I wrote my name and address and handed it back to him along with the money.

I looked back toward the stage, where instruments were being tuned and amplifiers were being connected.  I was not sure if the people on stage were band members or crew, since I did not recognize all of the band members by face.  I would have recognized Paul Sykes, the lead singer, from the two other times I saw them play live, but he was not currently on stage.

By the time eight o’clock approached, the crowd had grown in size considerably, as several hundred people and their alcoholic beverages packed into that fenced-off parking lot.  I was starting to feel a little bit crowded by the people around me on all sides.  Eventually, about fifteen minutes after the show was scheduled to start, a master of ceremonies walked on stage and gave a short speech about the C.J. Davis Art Center, its importance in the community, and the generosity of the Sykes family.  He finished his speech by announcing, “The name of this band is Lawsuit!”

The crowd began cheering wildly; I joined in, clapping.  The ten members ran up the stairs on the side of the stage, one by one, and took their positions, getting their instruments ready.  They began the show the same way they did when I saw them in April at the Spring Picnic, by playing the music from the song “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang, with Paul rapping, his lyrics fast enough to be barely intelligible to me.  After Paul rapped about Lawsuit not being a rap band, the hand drummer began playing a faster rhythm, and the rest of the band segued into a song of their own called “Thank God You’re Doing Fine.”  This had been the first Lawsuit song I ever heard when I saw them at the Spring Picnic freshman year, and to this day it is still my favorite song of theirs.  Toward the end of the song, I started mouthing some of the words: “When it comes to the end of the world, you’ve got only one thing left to do, and that’s thank God, thank God you’re doing fine.”  I had heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times by then, and it just occurred to me in that moment that Lawsuit may have been making an intentional allusion to R.E.M., who famously sang nine years earlier that “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

About half an hour into the show, I realized that I only knew about half the songs they were playing.  Lawsuit had five albums, and I only had the two most recent ones.  I did not know if the unfamiliar songs they played were from older albums, or originally by other artists, or new songs they had written but not recorded yet.  Some of the unfamiliar songs sounded delightfully catchy, whereas others were just strange.  One of the songs was about a couch, told from the first-person perspective of the couch.  The crowd’s enthusiastically positive reaction to hearing that song made me feel somewhat like the song was a big inside joke, and I was the only person there who was not in on it.

Midway through the show, as one song entered, Paul and another band member began bantering about the daytime TV drama Days Of Our Lives, and a few of the instrumentalists played the beginning of the show’s theme song.  Yet another inside joke I was not part of, I supposed; I associated Days Of Our Lives with old women and housewives, not the kind of people who were in one of the coolest bands ever.  After that, they transitioned into an uptempo song about a girl who had an ugly butt.  I laughed out loud when I heard them say that the first time.  This band was amazing.  They had everything… they had songs that sounded like regular pop-rock, songs that sounded more like punk with horns, songs that had more of a jazz-swing beat… and songs about an ugly butt.  Why did this band not get more attention in the mainstream?  Sometimes, their monthly postcards with information about upcoming shows said at the bottom, “Don’t forget to bug your radio stations!”  This band was better than a lot of stuff on the radio.

After the song about the ugly butt, one of the horn players apologized to anyone who actually had an ugly butt who might have been offended by that song. Then another of the horn players, I think she was Paul’s sister, or maybe sister-in-law, sang the first verse of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as a segue into “Useless Flowers,” a song of theirs that I knew well with Paul back on vocals.  The last line of Useless Flowers was “All the money I failed to make can’t buy me love,” with those last four words sung and played on the exact same notes, in the exact same rhythm, as the classic Beatles song of that title.  I always thought that was a clever reference.

The concert continued for what seemed like a blissful eternity.  The other two times I had seen Lawsuit in person were at the Spring Picnic, where bands only played for around 40 minutes before clearing the stage to prepare for the next band playing.  But this show was all Lawsuit, and it lasted for over two hours.  As much as I enjoyed the two hours of music, though, this long concert carried a downside: the people around me became progressively more drunk, raucous, and clumsy as the night went on.  I was just standing there, trying to enjoy the music, and I got bumped by the people around me numerous times.  I had moved progressively farther from the stage as the night went on, as I got jostled and crowded out of my spot, and someone’s spilled beer had splashed on my shirt.  And although the weather cooled somewhat after the sun went down, the stage area still radiated with the body heat of hundreds of concertgoers, and I still felt a little sticky and sweaty.

Toward the end of the night, Paul sang and the band performed a song where the character in the song was trying to convince a girl of his desirability, punctuated by the more direct phrase “let’s go to bed.”  This prompted cheers from the drunks around me.  After that song ended, Paul gestured for everyone to get quiet.  After about ten seconds of silence, he looked upward, as if toward heaven, and shouted into the microphone, “Hey, Dave!  This one’s for you!”  That was nice, I thought, a fitting tribute to his brother who had died in the accident.  Then, as the band began playing “Picture Book Pretty,” a song I knew from one of their albums I had, I wondered how such a loud shout was legal, considering that Jeromeville had strict laws about loud parties.  Maybe the law didn’t apply to events put on by those who were well-connected locally, like the Sykeses.  The title of this annual benefit concert came from a line from this song: “One thousand red roses would not be quite enough, ‘cause she’s picture book pretty.”  The album version of the song said “one dozen red roses,” but they always changed it to “one thousand” in live performances.

After Picture Book Pretty ended, Paul said, “Thank you so much!  Don’t forget to support local arts and music!  We have a mailing list and merchandise at that table in the back.”  As he pointed toward the merchandise table, he continued, “Thank you, and good night!”  The band began filing off the stage as the crowd cheered loudly.  I started to step backward away from the stage to head home when I noticed that no one else was leaving; everyone just kept cheering loudly.  I wondered if they knew that something more would happen after the last song.  This felt like another of those moments where the band and most of the others here were in on some inside joke that I was not aware of.

Of course, this was not some Lawsuit inside joke; the crowd wanted an encore.  It was standard practice at the end of a concert like this to cheer loudly until the band came back out to play another song or two.  But I had never been to an actual concert, so I knew none of this.  The band did come back out after about two minutes; the drums, bass, and horns began playing a low, quick, repetitive melody.  Paul began rapping atonally about Albert Einstein, combining historical facts about Einstein’s life with whimsical comments about his hair and silly statements about Einstein playing football and baseball.  This was a strange song.  They followed this with one more song that I did not recognize and ended the show for real this time.

The people around me mingled and talked, and some headed toward the merchandise table.  I noticed some of the band members walking around talking to fans.  That would be fun, to meet the band.  I looked around to see if Paul was anywhere nearby, and I saw him talking to a few other people in front of the stage.  I worked my way over to where Paul was standing and politely waited my turn.  After a few minutes, the people in front of me left, and Paul turned to me.  “Hi, there!” Paul said.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a flyer about upcoming shows that I had taken from the merchandise table before the show started, along with a black ballpoint pen that I carried around in my pocket sometimes.  “May I have your autograph?” I asked.

“Sure!” Paul replied, smiling.  He took the flyer and pen, turned the flyer to the blank side, and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” I said.

Paul began writing.  “G-R-E-G?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

Paul scribbled a few things on the paper and handed it back to me.  “Here you go.”

“Thanks so much,” I said.  “It was a great show.  I had fun.”

“Thanks!  I hope to see you at another one soon.”

“I will!”

I stepped away as Paul turned to talk to other people waiting for him.  I looked at the back of my flyer to see what he wrote:


To Greg-
Have fun!

Love,
Paul Sykes


The name on the bottom was barely legible, like most celebrity signatures.  But I know who it was and where I got it.  Later that night, when I got home, I retired the pen Paul touched and never used it again, keeping the pen and autographed flyer in a box so that I could remember the time I saw Lawsuit live and met Paul Sykes.

I looked around and noticed that some people had begun trickling out of the gated stage area, headed home as well, while others were still standing around with their friends.  I had met Paul, I had no other accomplishments to complete that night, so I began walking toward the gate.

In keeping with the One Thousand Red Roses theme, someone stood at the gate and handed a long-stemmed red rose to everyone leaving the show.  I took mine and walked back down Coventry Boulevard toward my apartment, on an excited high from the amazing live music I saw that night.  The walk home took about fifteen minutes, and it was mostly quiet and peaceful, since the people leaving the concert were dispersing in multiple directions.  It was around eleven at night, and a cool breeze had picked up, cool enough that I would not normally be outside wearing shorts in this temperature.  I was not uncomfortable, though, because at the concert I was surrounded by other sweaty people, and now I was moving, expending energy to walk back to my apartment.

I unlocked the door and took off my shirt, which smelled of sweat and other people’s beer, and put on a new shirt. Then I walked to the kitchen.  I was not sure what to do with a cut rose.  I had seen people put flowers in vases of water.  I was not classy enough to have a vase, particularly since I pronounced vase to rhyme with “base,” not like “vozz.”  I found an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola in the box I used to hold recyclables, rinsed it out, filled it water to make a makeshift vase, and put the rose inside.  I then sat down at the computer, because it was not particularly late and I was used to staying awake much later than this.  I typed an email to a girl in New Zealand whom I had met on the Internet recently, replying to her email about classes and telling her about the concert.

Paul had told me that he hoped to see me at a show again soon.  I hoped to go to a show again soon.  Lawsuit played all up and down the state, but they played in this area fairly often.  They also played in Bay City frequently, still within a day trip distance.  I would definitely be watching the monthly flyers I got in the mail for shows I might be able to go to.  And I would tell people about this band.  Once that t-shirt I bought tonight came back in stock, I would wear it around campus and to class and to the grocery store, so I could tell people about Lawsuit, and be identified as a Lawsuit fan to any other Lawsuit fans I might meet.  That plan did not get off the ground as I had hoped, for reasons including the t-shirt taking two months to finally arrive.  But I tried.  I had already told one person on the other side of the globe about this band, so that counts for something, and Lawsuit is still in my music collection and playlists today.


Author’s note: Sorry this was a day late!

July 27-29, 1996. Questioning my spiritual home. (#94)

The Dennison family got cable television in 1984.  I was in second grade, and we now got thirty channels with very clear pictures. This was a vast improvement over the six channels we got before, two of which were full of static and one of which was in Spanish.  I grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, and my mother absorbed knowledge of much of the popular music of that day.  However, my mother also had the habit of not paying close attention to lyrics and misunderstanding the meanings of songs.  To her, for example, “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper was about dancing, rather than masturbation, and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen was a proud patriotic anthem, not a criticism of the United States government’s past involvement in Vietnam and subsequent neglect of veterans.

In 1996, after getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and making new friends there, I discovered the new world of Christian rock music.  Bands like DC Talk and Jars of Clay filled two of the three discs on my CD changer, and I copied both albums to cassettes to listen to in the car.  A few of those Christian rock hits were getting played on mainstream secular radio stations, and in an attempt to connect with me, Mom would tell me whenever she heard one of these songs.  Mom would also tell me whenever she heard some other song that had a lyric that sounded religious and ask if that song was by one of my Christian bands, despite the fact that many of these words had meanings in ordinary English and were used by non-Christian musicians as well.  No, Mom, “Salvation” by the Cranberries is not Christian music.

My family had recently set up Internet access, and Mom had made the humorous email name “Peg Not Bundy” for herself, in reference to Peg Bundy, the wife from TV’s Married With Children, and the fact that her name was Peggy also.  I opened an email from Peg Not Bundy and read it.


From: peg_notbundy@aolnet.com
To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Sat, 27 Jul 1996 09:33 -0700
Subject: Re: hi

I finally have a few minutes to sit and write.  It has been such a busy week!  I’ve had a lot of work to do.  Today Mark has a baseball game, so I have to take him to that, then Cody is coming over afterward p[bdfg6t7sdvg78ysvd (Davey says hi).


Davey was a cat, and that gibberish meant that he climbed on the keyboard as Mom was typing.  This was not the first time this had happened, but it always made me smile when I read that in Mom’s emails.  I continued reading.


I heard a song on the radio today that I kind of like.  The chorus said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God.”  Do you know that song?  Is that one of your Christian bands?  How is your class going?  One more week, right?  Talk to you later.  Love, Mom


I replied to the email and told Mom that the song was “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla, and it was definitely not Christian music.  If Mom had listened to the next line, she would know that the song actually said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  A real Christian band would not be referring to God as “her”; this would be extremely unpopular with listeners of mainstream Christian music, although the idea was not unheard of among liberal feminists in the Church.

Liberal feminists in the Church were not hard to find in a university town like Jeromeville.  I attended Mass at the Jeromeville Newman Center, and one time last year, before I was part of the choir, I remember we sang a familiar song called “On Eagle’s Wings.”  Since its publication in 1979, this had been a popular song for Catholic Masses; I had heard and sung it many times growing up at Our Lady of Peace Church.  The line at the end of the chorus said “and hold you in the palm of his hand,” with God doing the holding, but the first time I heard it at Newman, it sounded like they were saying something a little different, almost like “palm of her hand.”  Some time later, when I got to church, I looked at the sign that had the numbers of the day’s songs in the songbook, and next to the number for On Eagle’s Wings was a female ♀ symbol.  Just like the time before, the choir sang female pronouns for God.  I noticed as the year went on that they would occasionally change other lyrics to refer to God in the feminine. I was a little surprised at this, because in my experience, the radical feminists and hippies who used female pronouns for God were not Catholic.



The day after Mom asked about Counting Blue Cars, I drove myself to church.  I usually carpooled with Heather Escamilla, who lived in the same apartment complex as me, but she had blown off church to spend the weekend at the Great Blue Lake with her boyfriend.  I heard Counting Blue Cars on the way to church and promptly changed the station.  Hearing that song reminded me that we were singing On Eagle’s Wings with feminine pronouns today, and this still made me uncomfortable.  God did not have a gender or biological sex in the way that humans understand the concept, but making a point of using feminine pronouns in church, going against centuries of church tradition, just seemed arrogant to me.  The Bible was the Word of God, and if masculine pronouns were good enough for those who wrote it, why are they suddenly not good enough for Jeromevillians in 1996?  Changing God’s gender felt like a slippery slope toward changing God’s teachings.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire, the unofficial leader of the choir, said as I approached the other choir members.  “How are you?”

“Doing well.  One more week of class.”

“Nice!  Are you taking a class second session?”

“No.  I’m just going to hang out.  And I’m moving at the start of September.”

“Me too.  I’m getting an apartment with Sabrina and one other girl we know.  I’m going to have my own room for the first time!  I’m not going to need my bed loft!  Do you know anyone who wants to buy a bed loft?”

“Actually,” I said, “I might be interested.  I’m going to be sharing a room.  How much?”

“I was thinking fifty dollars.  We can talk about it later.  I’ll let you know.”

“Sounds good!”

I walked to my usual music stand, next to Ellen Stark.  “Hi,” I said.  “How are you?”

“Good!  We’re taking a family vacation this week, up to Portland to visit relatives.  I’m excited about that!”

“Fun!  I have my final exam on Thursday.”

“Good luck!  I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“When do you go back to California?”

“Middle of September.  So I’ll still be here for a while.”

“Good,” I said.

Claire whispered at all of us to be quiet as Father Bill and Sister Mary Rose walked up to begin Mass.  On Eagle’s Wings was the offertory song, sung about halfway through while the offering plates were being passed.  I had sung it with feminine pronouns before, because that was just the way things were done at the Jeromeville Newman Center, but today, with Counting Blue Cars still on my mind, it felt especially wrong.

“And hmm will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” I sang, purposely making the pronoun unintelligible.  “And hold you in the palm… of mmm hand.”  I looked at Ellen next to me to see if she noticed; she was looking straight forward, not at me.  Probably not.

After Communion, as Father Bill and others were making announcements, I noticed Lisa, another singer from our choir who sang at the early service during the school year, coming out of the back room with Sister Mary Rose.  Lisa walked back to her music stand.  I wondered what she was doing; she had been singing with us just a few minutes ago, and I did not notice her step away.  We sang the final song, and after Father Bill dismissed the congregation, we began putting our sheet music and stands away.  Lisa accidentally knocked over her stand, then almost tripped over it trying to pick up the scattered sheet music.

“Sorry!” Lisa laughed.  “There was a lot of leftover wine today.”

“What?” I asked, certain that I had misheard.

“After Communion, Sister Mary Rose and I were finishing the bread and wine,” Lisa explained.

“You have to eat and drink the rest of it?” Matt Jones asked.

“Yeah,” Lisa explained.  “You can’t just throw it away, it’s the Body and Blood of Christ!”

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Matt said.

“I know sometimes I need to get a little tipsy from the wine to finish the last song,” Lisa said, laughing.  Matt and Claire laughed with her, while I just stood, shocked at this blasphemy I was hearing.  I had recently read in First Corinthians where Paul wrote that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  My understanding was that, unlike many other Christians, Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine.  This is why, as Lisa said, it could not just be thrown away.

Joking about getting drunk off of the blood of Christ had no place in a house of worship.  At this point, though, I did not expect much reverence from a congregation that prioritized being good feminists and calling God She over church teaching.  I immediately walked over to Sister Mary Rose.

“Hi, Greg,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “How are you?”

“Can I talk to you sometime?” I asked.  “I have some things I’ve been thinking about.”

“Sure.  What’s your schedule like this week?”

“I have class Tuesday and Thursday from 12 to 2, and Wednesday from 10 to 2.  I’m free tomorrow.”

“How about you just come by here tomorrow afternoon?  Around one o’clock, maybe?”

“That sounds good.  I’ll see you then.”

“Yes.  See you tomorrow.”


I decided to ride my bike to the Newman Center the next afternoon to talk to Sister Mary Rose, instead of driving.  That way I could continue on a recreational bike ride afterward.  The ride took about ten minutes, but it was hot enough that I was starting to sweat when I arrived.  I locked my bike and walked into the church office, slowly and carefully.

“Hi, Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Take a seat.”  I sat in a chair across from her at her desk, trying to get comfortable, as she asked, “So what’s going on?”

I took a deep breath, and then another one, trying to make the words come out right.  “When we sing songs like ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ with the feminine pronouns, that isn’t right to me.  It’s like you’re putting politics above church teaching and the Word of God.”

“Well,” Sister Mary Rose replied, “how do you think you would feel if you were a woman?”

I paused.  It seemed like she was setting me up to make me feel guilty for being a white male, a standard tactic used by liberals to make conservatives look bad.  I did not feel guilty for being who I was, but I also did not want to start an argument or say anything that Sister Mary Rose would find offensive.  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “I would probably notice that God is usually spoken of as if he were male, but I would like to think that I would submit to Scripture and Church teaching on the subject.”

“Well, God is not a man.  God has both male and female attributes.”

“I agree.”

“Then why is this a problem for you?”

“It just feels…” I shifted my position in my seat.  “Kind of arrogant, like you know better than hundreds of years of Church teaching, and the people who wrote the Bible.”

“Church teaching has changed.  And so has language.  It was normal at one time to use a word like ‘mankind’ to mean all men and women, but today we would say ‘humankind.’”

I nodded, but inwardly cringed.  I thought “humankind” was kind of a dumb word, when “mankind” did just as well with fewer letters and syllables.  It had only been twenty-seven years since Neil Armstrong’s famous use of the word “mankind,” and the language had already changed?  I remember being home at Christmas and noticing that this year’s songbook at Our Lady of Peace had replaced the word “mankind” in one of the later verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “humankind,” breaking the rhythm by adding an extra syllable.  Forcibly changing the language like that felt too much like George Orwell’s 1984 to me.

However, Sister Mary Rose brought up an important point: I was not a woman.  I did not know how it felt to live in a culture that historically treated women as second-class citizens, and while women had made a great deal of progress toward equality, old habits and scars remained at times.

“But,” I asked, “isn’t church teaching supposed to be based on the Bible?  And the word of God doesn’t change.”

“The word of God doesn’t change,” Sister Mary Rose reiterated.  “The Church will never do anything that goes against the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus.  And changing the language we use doesn’t go against any of that.  You agreed that God has male and female attributes.  So using male and female language to refer to God does not go against any teaching.”

I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”

“Pray about it.  Pray that God will give you peace about this.”

“I just don’t know if I belong here anymore.”

“What do you mean?  Where?”

“The Newman Center.  I’ve been getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, they are nondenominational, but the more I learn about the Bible, I see a lot of people here who don’t really seem to take their faith seriously.”  I shifted in my seat again, debating telling her about Lisa getting tipsy from the Communion wine; I decided not to.

“Greg, no one is perfect.  Everyone sins.  That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And if you are concerned about them, you can be a good example and take your faith seriously, and pray for them.”

I nodded.  “That makes sense,” I said.

“You’ve been a part of Newman for, how long?  Two years now?  I would hate for you to feel like this isn’t your spiritual home anymore.”

“Yeah.”

“May I pray for you?”

“Sure.”

Sister Mary Rose folded her hands and looked down, and I did the same.  “O Loving Parent, I pray for your blessing on Greg.  I thank you for bringing him to the Newman Center to be a part of our community.  I thank you for blessing us with his voice on Sunday mornings.  I pray that you will give him peace about these things that have been on his mind, and that he will listen for your guidance.”  She continued, saying the Hail Mary prayer, then lifted her head and opened her eyes.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Just find a quiet place and listen to God.”

“I’ve been trying to do that.”

“Good!  Keep doing that.”  We made small talk for a few minutes, and I left, feeling a little bit better, but still unsure of what to think of all this.


Later that night, when I got home from my bike ride, I turned on the radio and went to the kitchen to make dinner.  My sink was full of dirty dishes, and my little studio apartment did not have a dishwasher, so I began washing the dishes by hand.  Counting Blue Cars came on a few minutes into doing the dishes.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” lead singer J.R. Richards sang, “‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  My hands were too wet and soapy to walk over and change the station, so I left it on.  It really was not a bad song, other than the use of female pronouns for God.  

I will tell you all my thoughts on God, J.R., I thought.  God created the universe and inspired holy men to write the Bible.  Those holy men referred to God with masculine language, so I will do the same.  A huge part of knowing God is knowing and obeying his Word, and not placing the cultural norms of this liberal university town above God’s Word.  I hope you do meet him someday.

But that in no way makes women second-class citizens.  Men and women are both created in the image of God, and both have roles to play in God’s kingdom.  And I had to admit that I had not studied the original languages of the Bible, so I did not know how gender and language worked when the Bible was originally written.

I still felt unsettled about all of this, and uncomfortable with the idea of a church referring to God in the feminine.  I felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, with church choir members getting tipsy from Communion wine.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” J.R. continued, “‘cause I’m on my way to see her.  Tell me, am I very far?”  I was going through the same process as the character in the song, seeking God and wanting to know how to get closer to him.  Maybe that would happen at the Newman Center, or maybe I was looking for something else, but I was asking the right questions and moving in the right direction.